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Knowledge Synthesis: Systematic, Scoping & Other Reviews

Need Help?

To arrange for a systematic or scoping review consultation, please complete this Consult Request form.

Systematic Review workshops are offered regularly - please check the events calendar for the next offering, or view recordings and slides.

For more information on how UBC Librarians can support your systematic or scoping review project, please see the How we Can Help document below.

Deciding between a Systematic or a Literature Review?  Check out this description of the differences in their stages and processes.

Before you start


Knowledge syntheses require:

  • a team
  • a significant amount of time to complete
  • adherence to transparent and rigorous methods
  • a strong project management component
  • commitment, clear and open communication among all team members
  • patience to get through the learning curve of the process

Read a comprehensive Readiness Checklist provided by Unity Health Toronto. 

Types of Reviews

Systematic reviews can be very time intensive (up to 18 months, by some estimates). Other review methods may be more appropriate for you if you have limited time, or are working alone. The PredicTER tool can give you an estimate of how much time may be needed for your review.

The links below have more information on choosing a review method. The tabs above provide guidance for conducting each review.


Social Sciences and Education

Environmental Evidence


Overviews of reviews may also be called umbrella reviews, reviews of reviews, or metasyntheses.

This table highlights key differences between systematic reviews (and other types of knowledge synthesis review) and literature reviews (sometimes called narrative reviews):

Category Systematic Review Literature Review

To find the answer to a specific research question.

This question is developed and may be registered before the systematic review begins.
Need not answer a question. Answers the question “What do we know about _?” Critical; synthesis of theories and approaches to a problem or topic. Conceptual categories
Methodology As prescribed precisely by PRISMA. Documentation of methodology must be included in the review. Varies by discipline and topic
Criteria for evidence Pre-defined and confirmed by 2+ raters. Empirical, qualitative evidence; may include discussion of and analysis of theoretical frameworks, etc.
Criteria for inclusion may not be stated.
Type of publications retrieved from search Primary research, e.g. peer-reviewed journal articles, clinical trials, conference proceedings. Varies by discipline and topic but may include primary sources (e.g. archival materials, datasets), as well as monographs, journal articles and proceedings.
Database(s) search terms and strategies Documented, and forms part of most systematic reviews, typically as an appendix; aim is replicability Documentation of database search(es) not typically required in completed review.

For more information, please see: Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Chapter 4: Searching for and Selecting Studies

Overview of Evidence Synthesis Steps

Good planning can save immense amounts of time when completing an evidence synthesis.

First steps include:

  1. Check whether a review has already been completed on your topic
  2. Write and register a protocol which includes:
  • Research question
  • Eligibility criteria and key definitions
  • Draft search strategy
  • Approach to data extraction and synthesis
  1. Searches run in databases (including grey literature databases if appropriate)
  2. Hand searching journals and websites (if appropriate)
  3. Export all results to Covidence
  4. De-duplicate results in Covidence - verifying duplicates found
  1. Screen title and abstracts against eligibility criteria - minimum of 2 reviewers
  2. Download full-text for remaining studies
  3. Screen full-text against eligibility criteria - minimum of 2 reviewers
    • Note exclusion reasons
  4. Critically appraise remaining studies for risk of bias (for systematic reviews, not applicable to scoping reviews)
    • Use the tool appropriate for the type of research being analyzed (e.g. RCT, qualitative, etc.)
  1. Extract data from the included studies based on predetermined criteria
    • E.g. author, title, publication year, age of participants, application to inclusion criteria, type of intervention used
  2. Thematically categorize qualitative data or visually display quantitative data
  1. Write your review using appropriate reporting guidelines (e.g. PRISMA) - ensure all elements are documented and discussed
  2. Append search strategies and any other documentation that will allow the reader to see a transparent methodology for your review