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Doing a systematic review

Guidance on the steps involved in doing a systematic review, and ways in which the Library can help.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review...

  • Answers a focused (often clinical) question
  • Uses a comprehensive, reproducible search strategy
  • Identifies ALL relevant studies (published and unpublished)
  • Evaluates all results for inclusion and quality
  • Brings together the findings in an unbiased way and presents a balanced summary
  • To avoid bias is usually run by at least two researchers. Professional reviews will often involve large teams looking at complex research questions
  • Large studies can take months or even years to complete
Getting help

Watch our introductory videos

Contact your Academic Liaison Librarian

Your Academic Liaison Librarian can give advice on some of the steps in the process, such as choosing where to search (step 2), developing a search strategy (step 3), running & recording your search (step 4) and managing your search results (step 5). Refer to your supervisor for help with developing your protocol, evaluating the studies and writing up the review.

How does it differ from a systematic literature search?

You may be asked to do a systematic review, when what they actually want you to do is a systematic review of the literature. There are few key differences. Check with your supervisor what type of review they want you to do.

Systematic review Systematic literature review
Brings together the results of studies to answer a clearly defined and well focused question. Provides a subjective summary of the literature on a topic, not necessarily to answer a specific question.
Extensive search across multiple databases covering published literature. More detailed systematic reviews will also include grey literature. Comprehensive and explicit search methods used and reported. Thorough search of published literature.
A detailed protocol is developed to define the study, often using the PICO framework. Does not need a protocol, although may have inclusion and exclusion criteria.
Usually involves three or more people to eliminate bias (but a more limited version can be done by a single student for their dissertation). Can be produced by a single person, so open to bias.
Large, professional systematic reviews can take months or years to produce. Weeks or months to produce.


  • A detailed protocol
  • Systematic search strategy
  • Review of results against eligibility criteria
  • Evaluation of studies
  • Interpretation and presentation of results
  • Extensive reference list
  • Detailed appendices showing search strategies


  • Introduction
  • Methods - search strategy
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Long reference list

Summary adapted from: Kysh, L. (n.d.) What's in a name? The difference between a systematic review and a literature review and why it matters. URL: [9 April 2018]

Other types of review

There are many other types of review a few of which are outlined below. Many of the steps in this guide will still be relevant for other reviews, it might just be the way you synthesise the results which is different. For a more comprehensive overview of review types see the page below from Duke University:

Scoping review
An initial assessment of the size and scope of research literature on a topic. Can be the first step in a systematic review.

Rapid review
Uses systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research to find out what is already known about a topic.

A statistical approach to combining the data derived from from studies retrieved by a systematic review.

Narrative review
Uses description rather than statistics to analyse the findings from relevant primary studies.

Systematic reviews summarised

The following videos offer two explanations of systematic reviews and what's involved in doing them.



Video intros to doing a systematic review

We have produced a playlist of five videos to support students doing a systematic review:

  • Video 1 - getting started, an overview of the process.
  • Video 2 - covers the first four steps in doing a systematic review, including creating a protocol and searching for literature.
  • Video 3 - covers the fifth and sixth steps in doing a systematic review. It focuses on using Desktop EndNote to manage references and screening the literature.
  • Video 4 - covers writing it up and creating a PRISMA diagram.
  • Video 5 - a more detailed video on using EndNote for managing references collected for a systematic review.

If you are unable to view these videos on YouTube they are also available on YuJa (University username and password required):