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Systematic Reviews

Specialised advice for planning, researching and writing Systematic Reviews.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a review of research that aims to be principled, methodical and explicit. A systematic review addresses a clearly defined research question and uses explicit and standardised methods to identify and review the literature (EPPI-Centre).

The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions states that systematic reviews have the following characteristics:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;
  • an explicit, reproducible methodology;
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that meet the eligibility criteria;
  • an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Systematic reviews started in the health and medicine discipline. They have since started to be used in other disciplines including social sciences, sciences and engineering.

Due to this, some content in this guide has a health focus, although it may be applied to other disciplines.

Steps to a systematic review


  1. Plan the review 

  2. Search for the literature.

  3. Analyse the results.

  4. Synthesise findings from included sources.

  5. Write the review.

The Guidelines & Tools section includes guidelines and handbooks as well as software and other tools to manage the process.

Adapted from:What authors do by Jessica Kaufman, Cochrane Consumers & Communication review Group /CC BY-SA 4.0

Types of reviews

Different reviews suit different purposes.

  Literature Review Scoping Review Systematic Review
Description Describes, summarises and evaluates existing information. Preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available literature. Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesise research evidence.
Literature Search May or may not be comprehensive Completeness determined by time/scope restraints Comprehensive
Quality appraisal May or may not include No formal quality assessment Included - this may determine inclusion/exclusion
Analysis May be chronological, conceptual, thematic etc. Characterises quantity and quality of literature perhaps by study design and other key features What is known: recommendations for practice or what remains unknown: uncertainty around findings, recommendations for future research
Recommended timeframe* 1 week - 1 month 2-6 months 9-12+ months
Reviewers Required One At least one At least 2-3

*timeframe may vary from this guide, depending on the number of eligible articles included in the review and other demands on the reviewers' time.

The following videos discuss different types of reviews and their purposes.

A/Prof Ronny Gunerson (College of Medicine & Dentistry), Why do it and in what versions do they come? JCU Systematic Review Masterclass 2017

* Available to JCU staff and students only

Edoardo Aromataris (2017). Which review is right for you? Scoping the scope of an evidence synthesis. The Joanna Briggs Institute, The University of Adelaide.

This presentation covers different types of systematic reviews, including:

  • Effectiveness Reviews
  • Qualitative Reviews
  • Costs/Economics Reviews
  • Prevalence or Incidence Reviews
  • Diagnostic Test Accuracy Reviews
  • Etiology and Risk Reviews
  • Textual Synthesis Reviews
  • Psychometric Reviews
  • Mixed Methods Reviews


It also covers other types of reviews, including:

  • Umbrella Reviews
  • Scoping Reviews
  • Rapid reviews

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