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Systematic reviews

A guide that outlines the process for conducting a systematic review.

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Planning the systematic review

This guide aims to provide Higher Degree by Research students with information on conducting a systematic review of the literature.

For HDR students a systematic review may form part of the literature review chapter for a thesis. Occasionally the systematic review may even be a separate thesis chapter due to length. The systematic review will be a smaller focus of the overall research to be presented in a thesis. It should complement and add value to your research and thesis. The systematic review also lends itself to be a potential publication during candidature.

A critical aspect of a systematic review is careful planning before you conduct the search properly. There are a number of steps in the process, and each needs to be documented effectively to ensure the process can be replicated by others or repeated and updated in the future. It is an iterative process where some aspects may be explored and revisited a number of times, but careful planning will ensure the success of the review.

Complete a Request Research Advice form to get help from a librarian as you begin the process of conducting a systematic review.

The process of a systematic review

This video on systematic reviews provides an overview of the key components, and the process you need to follow when conducting one. Briefly covered is developing the research question and the protocol, aspects about searching, performing the analysis, reporting findings, and further assistance.

Introducing systematic reviews (13:52 mins), RMIT Library Teaching & Research, Microsoft Stream (RMIT login required)


 The steps involved in conducting a systematic review

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Step 1 - A systematic review starts from a clearly defined, research question.

  • This may require preliminary searching (scoping) to see what evidence is already available and whether a systematic review has been done before. Does the research question need amending? Consider using PICO to formulate the question.

Step 2 - Develop a protocol (ie. plan) for your review. This will include a number of elements, such as, search strategy and databases, eligibility criteria, screening process, critical appraisal process, and data analysis / synthesis process.


 Highly recommended that preliminary searches of selected databases be done before moving to step 3.

  • Are the chosen search terms retrieving the desired information? Do they need adjusting?
  • Is the search strategy explicit and reproducible?
  • Are there particular papers you want included in the review? Are they showing in your search results?
  • How many results are you retrieving? Too many? Will you have a desired amount of studies once you have screened?
  • Are you retrieving too few results? Do you need to rethink the research question?
  • Is the eligibility criteria sufficiently developed that it is comprehensive enough to do effective screening of the studies to retrieve a desired amount for the review?

Then, per your protocol:

Step 3 - Conduct searches of the selected databases.

Step 4 - Screen results for relevant studies that meet your eligibility criteria.

Step 5 - Critically appraise the quality of the included studies for risk of bias.

Step 6 - Extract and synthesise relevant data from the included studies.

Step 7 - Summarise and interpret the evidence to answer your question.

Step 8 - Present your findings.

The elements of a systematic review

What is it? - ‚ÄčA systematic review is a type of literature review that attempts to identify, appraise and synthesise all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers should use explicit and reproducible methods aimed at minimising bias in order to produce reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making.

Reasons for choosing - To address a clearly focused review question by finding the best available, relevant research studies and synthesising the results.

Question - Focused on a single topic.

Sources / Search - A peer review protocol or plan is included. Clear objectives are identified. Comprehensive sources are searched with an explicit and reproducible search strategy.

Eligibility criteria - Eligibility criteria is clearly defined at the outset, ie. before the review is conducted.

Selection - Criterion-based selection that is uniformly applied, clear and explicit.

Appraisal - Rigorous critical appraisal, and evaluation of study quality.

Synthesis - Clear summaries of studies based on high quality evidence.

Inferences - Evidence based.

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