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Systematic Reviews  

An introduction to the requirements, search strategies and resources needed to conduct the literature review portion of a Systematic Review
Last Updated: Apr 16, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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Guidelines for writing Systematic Reviews

  • Cochrane Hanbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions
    The official document that describes in detail the process of preparing and maintaining Cochrane systematic reviews on the effects of healthcare interventions.
    PRISMA stands for Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. It is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The PRISMA Statement consists of a 27-item checklist and a four-phase flow diagram.
  • Finding What Works in Health Care
    Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends 21 standards for developing high-quality systematic reviews of comparative effectiveness research. The standards address the entire systematic review process from the initial steps of formulating the topic and building the review team to producing a detailed final report that synthesizes what the evidence shows and where knowledge gaps remain.
  • Centre for Reviews & Dissemination: Guidance for Undertaking Reviews in Health Care
    CRD is part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and is a department of the University of York. They provide research-based information about the effects of health and social care interventions via our databases and undertake systematic reviews evaluating the research evidence on health and public health questions of national and international importance.
  • HuGENetâ„¢ Handbook of Systematic Reviews
    A HuGE Review identifies human genetic variants at one or more loci; summarizes what is known about the frequency of these variants in different populations; and describes associations of these variants with disease, as well as their interactions with other known risk factors.

What's required?

In order to be thorough and systematic, multiple databases must be used and grey literature must also be searched if it is applicable. The Cochrane Collaboration recommends searching a minimum of three databases:

  • The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials
  • MEDLINE (via PubMed or OVID)
  • EMBASE (usually searched via Scopus)

The Cochrane Collaboration also specifies that:

  • Searches should seek high sensitivity, which may result in relatively low precision.
  • Too many different search concepts should be avoided, but a wide variety of search terms should be combined with OR within each concept.
  • Both free-text AND subject headings should be used.

Your inclusion/exclusion criteria are extremely important and allow you to make your results more precise after you've conducted a search to find as much as you can that touches on your topic of interest.

Just as in clinical or bench research, a detailed methodology of your search strategy, results and inclusion/exclusion criteria must be included in your review so that it is reproducible. PRISMA standards require you to fill out a flow diagram and provides a helpful checklist to determine if your SR is complete.


How long do they take?

Remember the evidence pyramid and how few systematic reviews and meta-anaylses there are? This can be attributed to a few factors:

  • Many topics do not have enough lower-level research completed to create a thorough SR
  • Many topics do not lend themselves to "pure" SRs
  • Requirements for SRs are stringent, causing many attempts to fall short in methodology
  • High-quality SRs take a lot of TIME and effort.

The Cochrane Collaboration estimates about a year to complete the process, and this is often by teams of people working together on one review.


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