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Systematic review searching

A resource to assist Flinders University staff and students undertaking systematic reviews

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review "attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question"¹

1. Cochrane Collaboration 2015, About Cochrane Reviews, accessed 20 Feb 2015, <http://www.cochranelibrary.com/about/about-cochrane-systematic-reviews.html>


What's the difference between a 'systematic review' and a literature (or 'narrative') review?

Systematic reviews are characterised by:

  • a clear, unambiguous research question
  • a comprehensive search to identify all potentially relevant studies
  • an explicit, reproducible and uniformly applied criteria for the inclusion/exclusion of studies
  • a rigorous appraisal of the quality of individual studies, and
  • a systematic synthesis of the results of included studies¹.

Other types of review are not required to follow this rigorous, transparent process. They can therefore be prone to bias in terms of how the author searches for studies and then selects, evaluates, and discusses them. Non systematic reviews provide no means to evaluate the completeness of the review or the author's agenda. 

An excellent article on systematic reviews and meta-analyses: Uman LS. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Feb; 20(1): 57–59.

What's the difference between a systematic review and a meta-analysis? 

'Meta-analysis'  refers to the statistical technique often used by quantitative systematic reviews to integrate the results of included studies. This increases the power and precision of estimates of treatment effect or exposure risk. Not all systematic reviews include a meta-analysis and not all meta-analyses are undertaken "systematically"²

2. Cochrane Collaboration n.d., Glossary: Cochrane Community, accessed 20 Feb 2015, <http://community.cochrane.org/glossary/5#letterm>

Meta-analysis 
In this video, Prof. Aaron Carroll explains meta-analysis using the nutrient content of organic food as an example.

Why are systematic reviews important? 

Systematic reviews condense research evidence from multiple primary studies using a process designed to minimise the risk of reporting conclusions in a biased way. They therefore provide us with a far more comprehensive and trustworthy picture of the topic of interest than can be gained from individual pieces of research.


Worth reading
Aromataris E, Pearson A. The systematic review: an overview. Am J Nurs. 2014 Mar;114(3):53-8. PubMed PMID: 24572533.


How are systematic reviews used? 

Systematic reviews inform us of what is already known, as well as what is currently unknown, about a topic.

They help researchers: 

  • place new research into a proper context
  • plan a research agenda by highlighting areas where further research is needed
  • minimise the risk of wasting research resources by duplicating research effort.

If sought and used by clinicians and healthcare consumers, systematic reviews (along with evidence-based guidelines) can:

  • assist clinician decision making by providing an easily digestible summation of the best research evidence available
  • improve individual patient care outcomes by highlighting best practice
  • minimise the risk of harming patients by exposuring treatments proven to be dangerous or downright ineffective
  • help consumers make more informed decisions about their own care.

Systematic reviews (and health technology assessments (HTAs) incorporating systematic review methods) can assist healthcare policy makers and administrators to: 

  • formulate policy, guidelines or legislation concerning the use of certain health technologies and treatment strategies
  • be more transparent in accounting to stakeholders for how public money is spent.

Systematic review and evidence-based medicine
In this video, Prof. Aaron Carroll gives an interesting overview of systematic reviews and their importance to evidence based medicine.

Systematic reviews may be published in the peer-reviewed journal literature. You can find these reviews using databases and restricting your search to publication type 'systematic review'.

Systematic reviews are also produced by government, NGOs, agencies and academic institutions and made available on websites. These reviews are an example of 'unpublished' (or 'grey') research. To find these reviews, you need to:

  • check the websites of relevant organisations
  • or, using Google Advanced Search, enter search terms for your topic in the top search box ('all these terms') as well as the phrase 'systematic review'. 


Major producers of systematic reviews

The Cochrane Collaboration is a global independent network of health practitioners, researchers, and patient advocates producing systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy. Cochrane reviews are internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care.

Cochrane reviews are published online in The Cochrane Library.


The Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) is the international not-for-profit, research and development arm of the School of Translational Science based within the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. JBI collaborates internationally with over 70 entities across the world in producing systematic reviews. JBI reviews are published  in the subscription journal JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports.


EPPI CentreEPPI-Centre is part of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. It conducts systematic reviews across a range of topics and works with a large number of funders. 

Major areas include:

  • Education and social policy
  • Health promotion and public health
  • International health systems and development
  • Participative research and policy.

Full reviews can be found in the Centre’s online Evidence Library.


Campbell

The Campbell Collaboration  is an international research network that produces systematic reviews of the effects of social interventions in education, crime and justice, social welfare and international development.

Full reports are published online in the Campbell Library.

Find PubMed articles about systematic reviews

Click on a link below to launch a real-time PubMed search for literature on:

All searches limited to English language and last 5 years only.


Tools for producing systematic reviews


Manuals for conducting systematic reviews

Video tutorial series

  Systematic review online tutorial series (Yale University)

An excellent series of video tutorials from Yale University's Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library). These cover topics such as: how to do a systematic review; building search strategies; finding grey literature; and using filters to restrict to specific study designs. 

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