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Research & Postgraduate Students: Systematic Reviews

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"A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view aimed at minimizing bias, to produce more reliable findings to inform decision making".

In contrast to the traditional literature review, systematic literature reviews use a more rigorous and precise approach to reviewing the literature in a specific subject area.

Why are systematic reviews important?

►They deliver a clear and comprehensive overview of available evidence on a given area.

►They help identify research gaps in our current understanding of a field.

►They can highlight methodological concerns in research that can be used to improve future work in the area.

►They can be used to identify questions for which the available evidence provides clear answers and consequently further research is not needed.

What's included in Systematic Reviews:

  1. Address one specific issue
  2. Have a specific goal or objective
  3. Define the criteria for what studies or other material will be included and excluded
  4. Have an established process for identifying and gathering information to be reviewed
  5. Evaluate the validity of the material being reviewed
  6. Include a process for peer review, or review by people in the same field of expertise
  7. Present a clear summary of findings that can be reviewed and replicated by others
  8. Have a summary that is written by experts who are well-versed in the field under review

The Pieces

Researchers conducting a systematic review need to follow fixed yet flexible and iterative processes that describe necessary steps required to produce a rigorous synthesis of the literature.

You should document at the time all of the steps that you take to complete your review, as this allows your methodology to be compiled accurately.

It is vital to define your question and determine if any other systematic review has previously been conducted on this question. To reduce bias in a systematic review, it is vital to develop a review plan or protocol.

Steps include:

  1. Planning a systematic review
  2. Identifying studies and sources
  3. Evaluating and appraising results
  4. Collecting and combining data
  5. Explaining the synthesis
  6. Summarizing the findings

Source: Foster, M.J. and Jewell, S.T. (eds.), 2017. Assembling the pieces of a systematic review: a guide for librarians. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [2 June 2020].


Protocols are used to pre-establish objectives and methods for your systematic review. They should be established prior to the formal literature search to help decrease bias. Registering protocols is recommended to avoid duplication of effort. Once you've developed your protocol, register it!

PROSPERO is the International prospective register of systematic reviews in health and social care, welfare, public health, education, crime, justice, and international development.

Systematic Review vs. Literature Review

It is common to confuse systematic and literature reviews as both are used to provide a summary of the existing literature or research in a specific area.



Table from: Robinson, P. and Lowe, J., 2015. Literature reviews vs systematic reviews. Australian and New Zealand journal of public health39(2), pp.103-103.



PRISMA is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. PRISMA focuses on the reporting of reviews evaluating randomized trials, but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews of other types of research.

Checkout their checklist.


What are systematic reviews? 
Prepared by the Cochrane Consumers and Communication Group

Guidance for trusted systematic reviews


Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions

Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.0 (updated July 2019). Cochrane, 2019.

Available from

Systematic Review Toolbox

The Systematic Review Toolbox is a searchable online catalogue of tools that support various tasks within the systematic review and wider evidence synthesis process.

The toolbox aims to help researchers and reviewers find:

  • Software tools
  • Quality assessment / critical appraisal checklists
  • Reporting standards
  • Guidelines

Tutorials & Training



Learn how to search systematically for information that you might need for research, for a literature review, publication, or report.


► Cochrane Training

Learning resources relevant to systematic reviews and evidence-based medicine.

Need Help?

Library staff are available to consult with researchers and offer training to:

  • Develop or refine review topics
  • Identify existing systematic reviews on a topic
  • Recommend appropriate databases
  • Review and develop search strategies to ensure all relevant studies are identified 
  • Advise on a citation management software
  • Advise on options for locating the full text of articles

Ask library staff at the information desk for help. If you’re at home, contact us at 091-742785 or | Galway City, Dublin Road 091-742785 | Galway City, Wellpark Road 091-745409 | Mayo 094-9043146 | Connemara 091-742666