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Systematic Reviews: What is a systematic review?

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a tightly structured literature review that focuses on a topic with strict research parameters. The methodology used to collect research has to be consistent in order to reduce misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the data.

The aim of a systematic review is to identify, analyse, appraise and arrive at a considered judgement or set of conclusions based on all the available information and data that adheres to the review's pre-determined set of conformities. Each piece of research material is examined and compared to other resources and summarised accordingly. Some people keep records such as a form or table summarising each reviewed article which they refer to when collating the evidence.

The purpose of following this very strict protocol is to gather evidence-based research that supports a balanced and unbiased conclusion. Statistical information can be extracted and analysed using a process known as meta-analysis.

What is a Systematic literature search?

A systematic literature search is a literature review on a database (such as Medline) which demonstrates that you have compiled a list of appropriate search terms and includes the structure of your search history which provides the evidence on which your assignment is based.

This is a less rigorous process than a systematic review. A systematic review usually covers a wider scope; you would be expected to look at all the available research in the area in question. For example, you would be expected to visit the Library if articles were only held in hard copy format, and where necessary obtain articles not held by the Library via the Document Supply Service.

You may be told that you need to conduct a systematic review when in fact you just need to perform a literature search in a systematic manner. Usually at undergraduate level you would not be expected to exhaust every avenue of information and find every article in your research area.

If you are unsure about the differences between a systematic review and a literature review, this very useful document summarises them;

What’s in a Name? The difference between a Systematic Review and a Literature Review and Why it Matters. By Lynn Kysh, Information Services Librarian, University of Southern California, Norris Medical Library, MLGSCA Poster 2013 – CC-BY.

Knowing the difference

It is important that you understand the difference between the two because the parameters of “searching systematically” are far more flexible than those for a systematic review.

Your tutors will often expect you to perform a systematic search on a database to encourage best academic practice. This also reduces reliance on Google which, though valid, does not show how you arrived at the set of references detailed in your bibliography. Your reference lists are supposed to reflect the arguments presented in your assignments; the reference lists provide the evidence.

Evidence-based assignments do not always have to be systematic reviews, and most undergraduate assignments are not systematic reviews. There are lots of different types of reviews which vary slightly in methodology. One of the characteristics they share is that all of them have a basic structure that has been given some thought by the person writing the report. Thus, when marking your work your tutors are looking at the strengths, weaknesses and depth of your arguments and assessing the evidence you have used to back your arguments up.

Creative Commons Licence This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Licence.

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