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Systematic Reviews

What is a Systematic Review?

The PRISMA statement defines a systematic review as "a review of a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select, and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. Statistical methods (meta-analysis) may or may not be used to analyze and summarize the results of the included studies. Meta-analysis refers to the use of statistical techniques in a systematic review to integrate the results of included studies." 1

In the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, the key characteristics of a systematic review are listed as:

  1. "a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  2. an explicit, reproducible methodology
  3. an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and
  4. a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies." 2


  1. Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG, The PRISMA Group. Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses: The PRISMA Statement. PLoS Med. 2009;6(7):e1000097.
  2. Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, Version 6.1 (updated September 2020). Cochrane, 2020. Available from


Register your protocol. Several options include:

Article Databases

Grey Literature: Trial Registries

The Systematic Review Toolbox (SR ToolBox) is a searchable catalog of tools that support various tasks within the systematic review process. Tools include software tools, quality assessment / critical appraisal checklists, and reporting standards guidelines. A few of the featured tools are listed below, some free and some subscription-based. Many of the subscription-based tools offer a free trial if you are interested in exploring the tool.

Appraisal Checklists

The Brown University School of Public Health Evidence Synthesis Academy has developed a series of tutorials and videos about conducting systematic reviews.  Here is the introductory video:

The Steps of a Systematic Review

 According to the Cochrane website, "Our volunteers and contributors are researchers, health professionals, patients, carers, and people passionate about improving health outcomes for everyone, everywhere. Our global independent network gathers and summarizes the best evidence from research to help you make informed choices about treatment and we have been doing this for 25 years." This video defines a systematic review:

What are Systematic Reviews by Cochrane

The Systematic Review Process

  1. Define your research question
  2. Check to make sure a systematic review has not already been done on your topic. If one has been done, but it is old, contact the authors to learn whether they plan to update it
  3. Assemble your team. Team members may include subject specialists, a systematic review method specialist, a biostatistician (if a meta-analysis), and a librarian
  4. Develop your protocol and register it
  5. Search the literature and collect the results
  6. Screen titles and abstracts to identify potentially relevant studies
  7. Review the full text articles and apply the inclusion and exclusion criteria
  8. Assess the quality of the eligible studies
  9. Depending on the type of review, extract the data and synthesize
  10. Report the findings

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