A systematic review is a type of literature review. It summarises a body of information and answers a research question.
The aims of a systematic review include identifying gaps in the literature, any limitations of current research, and suggesting a direction for future research. It is a specific methodology in which you identify, appraise and synthesise all relevant studies, in order to limit bias. Those studies should represent empirical research, and other systematic reviews should not be included.
On some courses, you may have to write a systematic review as your assessment for a module. If this is the case, you will receive specific guidance in your assessment brief and from your module tutor. Please use this guidance rather than our advice.
If you are considering a systematic review methodology for your dissertation or independent study, you should check if it’s a suitable approach with your tutor before going ahead. Your Academic Liaison Librarian’s role is to support you in developing your search strategy as a part of that methodology.
Unlike a narrative literature review, a systematic review must contain certain features.
You’ll need to detail where the search has been carried out; this means you must use specific databases, not Library Search.
Specify the date range you searched, as you’ll often need to justify the start date. You might choose to update an earlier, published systematic review. Alternatively, you could use the date of a relevant change in law or policy, or the publication date of a seminal paper.
You will use specific search terms to generate a list of papers for potential inclusion in your review. You’ll also include or exclude other features of each paper, such as
For a helpful introduction, see chapter 10 from Denscombe's book. If you’re studying social sciences, try Petticrew and Roberts’ book. CASP or EPHPP are great checklists for psychology and health students.
Most systematic reviews follow Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines.
A systematic review will usually include a flowchart or diagram, often as an appendix. It maps the number of records you find, and your applied inclusion and exclusion criteria, indicating any duplicate records you’ve removed.
You can download a PRISMA flow diagram and simply fill in your numbers. Please note that the flow diagrams have recently been updated and expanded by PRISMA. There are now four flow diagram options, and they require additional information not included in the previous (2009) version. You may, with tutor approval, use the 2009 version if you prefer.
PRISMA also has a checklist that’s helpful in ensuring you’ve covered everything.
This will depend on your course. Sometimes, supervisors or tutors agree that a student project will be a critical literature review, but using systematic principles. On this page, we’ve detailed what would be expected from a full systematic review. It is important that you agree with your tutor or supervisor what their expectations are, and the extent to which you will follow the process of a formal systematic review.
For example, you may set out clear search criteria and provide a PRISMA flow chart, but might not formally screen papers for quality. The National Foundation for Educational Research has good examples of papers that use systematic principles. Search their research and publications for “literature review”.
The title of the paper should identify it as a systematic review. A good starting point is searching your chosen keywords AND "systematic review” in Library Search.
In some databases you can select “systematic review” in the “methodology” field.
There are also systematic review databases available, such as Cochrane Library, The Campbell Collaboration and Prospero. The EPPI-Centre website includes systematic reviews in social policy, including education, health and social care.
This will depend on your topic area. We recommend taking a look at your subject guide for recommended databases and taking advice from your tutor.
It’s worth noting that Library Search and Google Scholar are search engines, not databases.
Contact your Academic Liaison Librarian, they will be happy to help.