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Systematic Review: things you need to know...

A Systematic Review is a form of secondary research that facilitates identification of all relevant evidence on a topic, assesses the quality of this evidence and synthesises the findings in an unbiased way. A systematic review is conducted with the same academic rigour as primary research. It is also replicable, which means that another researcher could repeat your review in the future.  

There is a set structure and format to carrying out a systematic review.  

Define a research question: Your question must set out what you want to determine. At this stage, carry out a scoping search to see if there is sufficient literature on this topic. Identify your inclusion criteria (e.g. date range, type of study, language). 

Search for the literature: After identifying the relevant keywords, alternative phrases, and synonyms carry out a systematic search of all suitable databases. A systematic review requires you to record the number of results produced and present these using a PRISMA flow diagram.

Select studies for inclusion: Sift through the studies to select which to include in your review. This can be done in three stages: read the titles, read the abstracts, then read the whole article for any remaining studies upon which you had not made a decision.   

Assess risk of bias: Examine the size of the study, scrutinise the selection methods, as well as where the studies have been published and in what language. CASP checklists can help you with this process.

Analyse the data and present the results: Create a narrative synthesis of the data, combining the findings of the studies in a way that presents them in a robust way, as well as summary of findings tables. 

Interpret the results and draw a conclusion: Place the findings in context and present your conclusion based upon your detailed study of the research reviewed.  


PRISMA is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. PRISMA primarily focuses on the reporting of reviews evaluating the effects of interventions, but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews with objectives other than evaluating interventions (e.g. evaluating aetiology, prevalence, diagnosis or prognosis) (PRISMA, no date). 

PRISMA provide useful checklists and a template for a flow diagram which is required to demonstrate the flow of the information at each stage of your systematic review. it demonstrates the number of papers identified during your searching stage and charts how the inclusion and exclusion criteria determined those included in the final review.

See the links below for more information from PRISMA.

CASP Checklists

The Critical Appraisals Skills Programme (CASP) provide a range of checklists that you can use to critically appraise research papers.

These checklists allow you to systematically assess the "trustworthiness, relevance and results" (CASP, no date) of the research papers you select for your systematic review. 

Select the checklist that suits your study best using the link below.

Barts Health Knowledge and Library Services have produced a series of videos that talk you through answering the questions on appraising a Randomised Controlled Trial. There is a link to this video playlist below also.

Risk of Bias

Risk of Bias (RoB) in Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) can be assessed using the Cochrane RoB2 Tool. This is the recommended tool to assess bias when conducting systematic reviews.

You can find out more about RoB2 on the Cochrane Methods webpages. 

Need to know more?

The Systematic Review reading list is a comprehensive list of resources to help postgraduate researchers to plan and complete a systematic review.

Some of the resources included in the list are linked on these tabs.

Have a look at our Research Resources page on our Postgraduate Support guide.

Here you will find information about a range of ways to find information relevant to your research project. 

Scoping Review

A scoping review represents a modern method of evidence synthesis that distinguishes itself from systematic reviews through its objectives and goals. Unlike systematic reviews, which aim to produce a definitive answer to guide clinical decision-making, the primary goal of a scoping review is to offer a broad overview of existing research evidence.

Scoping reviews serve as a means of knowledge synthesis, encompassing various study designs to comprehensively summarise and synthesise evidence. They aim to inform practices, programmes, and policies while also guiding future research priorities.

The overarching objective of conducting scoping reviews is to identify and map the available evidence, providing a foundational understanding of the research landscape within a particular field.


Cornell "Systematic Reviews: Scoping Reviews"