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Systematic Reviews Search Methodology : 1. Overview

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Search Process Index

(Click on each link)

Step 1: Preparation: Scope out existing systematic reviews and protocols

Step 2: Define the question:  Identify concepts and search terms

Step 3: Consider which sources to use: Licensed databases and alternate sources

Step 4: Develop a structured search strategy: Use of subject headings, keywords, combining search sets, truncation, limits, saving search histories

Step 5: Manage and document the process:   Use PRISMA guidelines, citation management software, and other tools


Definition of 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. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making."  Source: Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions

Key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly defined question
  • an explicit, reproducible methodology with clear inclusion and exclusion criteria for studies
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would 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, which includes the search methodology.

Types of Reviews

Need to know the difference between a scoping review, a systematic review, and a realist review? The links below offer some excellent background and guidance.

Guides and Manuals

Cochrane Handbook on Systematic Reviews of Interventions

The Cochrane Collaboration open learning material

Cochrane Collaboration

CRD's Guidance for Undertaking Reviews in Healthcare

Centre of Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, UK


Preferred Reporting of Systematic Reviews and Meta Analyses


Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta Analyses Protocols - 2015 Statement

SCIE Systematic Research Reviews: Guidelines  2nd edition

Social Care Institute for Excellence

How to Review the Evidence: Systematic Identification and Review of the Scientific Literature

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australia


Centre which offers tools and examples of social sciences systematic reviews

Standards for Systematic Reviews

Institute of Medicine


Peer Review Electronic Search Strategies, CADTH

PRESS Appendices (checklists)