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What is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review gathers, assesses and synthesizes all available empirical research on a specific question using a comprehensive search method.

The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • 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 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.

From Cochrane Handbook, 1.2.2

Summarizing vs. Synthesizing

In a systematic review, researchers do more than summarize findings from identified articles. You will synthesize the information you want to include.

While a summary is a way of concisely relating important themes and elements from a larger work or works in a condensed form, a synthesis takes the information from a variety of works and combines them together to create something new.

Synthesis:

"The goal of a systematic synthesis of qualitative research is to integrate or compare the results across studies in order to increase understanding of a particular phenomenon, not to add studies together. Typically the aim is to identify broader themes or new theories – qualitative syntheses usually result in a narrative summary of cross-cutting or emerging themes or constructs, and/or conceptual models."

Denner, J., Marsh, E. & Campe, S. (2017). Approaches to reviewing research in education. In D. Wyse, N. Selwyn, & E. Smith (Eds.), The BERA/SAGE Handbook of educational research (Vol. 2, pp. 143-164). doi: 10.4135/9781473983953.n7

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