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Systematic Reviews Search Methodology : 1. Overview

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Search Process Index

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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

SCIE Systematic Research Reviews: Guidelines  2nd edition

Social Care Institute for Excellence