In general, the writing process for a systematic review is similar to the process of writing any other kind of review.
A systematic review should provide an answer to the research question, it is not a broad overview of current trends and gaps in research. The review should show the reader how the answer was found, and provide the results you have identified.
A systematic review must have a detailed methodology that describes the search process and the selection process. This is why careful documentation of the methodology is important. A reader of the review should be able to critically interpret the findings- to understand why sources were chosen, how they were assessed, and how conclusions were reached.
The structure of the systematic review differs from the narrative review or the traditional literature review that allows you to organise it to best support your argument. A systematic review should reflect the stages outlined in the protocol. With a systematic review reporting guidelines should be followed that help you identify what should be included in each section of the review. One such standard approach is PRISMA.
Although much time is invested in developing a search strategy and screening results, a systematic review is valued by the critical reflection and interpretation of the findings. Focus on analysing, not summarising. Use a critical analysis tool to assess the studies.
Your systematic review needs to tell a story, and it needs to clearly articulate how it provides meaningful and original advancement of the field.
The abstract provides an overview of the systematic review. It usually covers the following:
Note that these points represent the general ‘story line’ seen in most systematic reviews: What we know (and perhaps what the gap is); what we set out to do; what we did; what we found; what this means.
The introduction provides an overview of the systematic review and enough contextual information for the reader to make sense of the remainder of the report. It usually covers the following:
Note however, that these points are not always in this order. Some writers prefer to begin with the research questions, followed by the context, building to the rationale.
The methods section can be divided up into two main sections.
The first section describes how the literature search was conducted. This section may contain any of the following information:
The second section discusses the criteria for including or excluding studies. This section may include any of the following information:
Details about the kind of systematic review undertaken, i.e. thematic analysis, might also be mentioned in the methods section.
Broadly speaking, in the results section,
Often, researchers will include tables in the Results section or Appendix to provide on overview of data found in the studies. Remember, tables in the Results section need to be explained fully.
A primary function of your discussion and conclusion is to help readers understand the main findings and implications of the review.
The following elements are commonly found in the discussion and conclusion sections. Note that the points listed are neither mandatory nor in any prescribed order.
Separate or combined?
A key difference between a discussion and a conclusion relates to how specific or general the observations are. A discussion closely interprets results in the context of the review. A conclusion identifies the significance and the implications beyond the review. Some reviews present these as separately headed sections. Many reviews, however, present only one section using a combination of elements. This section may be headed either Discussion or Conclusion.
The following publication has been used to supply annotated examples of the abstract, introduction, discussion and conclusion.
Jørgensen, C. R., Thomsen, T. G., Ross, L., Dietz, S. M., Therkildsen, S., Groenvold, M., Rasmussen, C. L., & Johnsen, A. T. (2018). What facilitates “patient empowerment” in cancer patients during follow-up: A qualitative systematic review of the literature. Qualitative Health Research, 28(2), 292-304. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317721477