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Systematic Reviews: Planning your review

Introduction

In order to conduct a robust systematic review, you need to be sure how your information resources work.

  • How familiar are you with the range of search resources at your disposal?
  • How familiar are you with the tools within your chosen resources?
  • Are you sure you have the right tools for the job?
  • Are you sure you know the rules for Boolean to ensure they work correctly?

Have a look at your subject guide if you are unfamiliar with the range of resources available for your research area. This gathers the most commonly used resources for each subject on one page. You may also want to look at other subject pages if your research area spans across multiple disciplines.

Different database platforms have different levels of functionality. The Exploring Health Sciences Platforms booklet gives an overview of each of the major health sciences platforms. You will become more familiar with the workings of the databases the more you use them. 

These slides and printable handouts show how to replicate database searches across different platforms.

If you are new to Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) the booklet, Making a MeSH of Things, explains how MeSH can help you develop your early scoping searches.

To help you think about your early search plans,  the Getting Started With Your Systematic Review Guide gives you a few basic starting points which may help you find your route – or routes forward. This can be used in addition to the other resources on this guide.

Using a framework

In order to structure the initial research some people find it useful to use structured frameworks. These are not compulsory nor are they set in stone. They are designed to help you formulate your research; you do not have to structure your research to fit into any the frameworks.

These three frameworks all have similar categories:

Evaluating Articles

When you are selecting articles, it is useful to have a criteria or checklist you want your articles to adhere to. This does not have to be overly complicated. This Evaluating Articles table is very simple and the questions give you a quick analysis of the usefulness of your resource.

In addition to this table, you may find the Essay and Information Inventory Plan useful too, particularly if you are new to research. The tables are designed to help you think about what you are reading, why you are reading it and how you are reading.

Referencing

If you need help with referencing visit the Referencing Guide.

referencing guide

The guide gives an overview of referencing, including different referencing styles and referencing software.

Creating a structure

When embarking on a systematic review you need to be clear of your objectives. You will need to carefully consider the parameters of the research before you start, including scope and timespan.

Systematic reviews are primarily evidence-based pieces of research that methodically compare research in an unbiased manner so that the ultimate conclusions stand up in accordance to the evidence presented. Years ago, medical research was not as robust as it is now; the method often involved a group of medical specialists coming together in an unregulated capacity and arriving at a set of conclusions that were subsequently documented circulated by one of the group. Follow ups and updates were somewhat haphazard.

Research is now far more structured and controlled. Whether a new study or a review of earlier thinking, systematic reviews are measured against a set of specific criteria outlined at the start.

Useful links

  • Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP)
    The CASP website has a useful range of free downloadable resources which can help you structure your research strategy and help you shape your research criteria. The CASP Checklists can help you determine which studies to focus on and which match the criteria you have laid out for your systematic review
  • Clinical Trials.Gov
    ClinicalTrials.gov is a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world.
  • PROSPERO database
    PROSPERO is an international database of systematic review proposals in the remit of health and social care. This is overseen by the CRD and the National Institute of Health Research. The purpose of the database is to provide information on proposed research and research in progress to avoid the prospect of duplication by other researchers or other research proposals.
  • PRISMA checklist
    The PRISMA checklist is a document that assists in the registering of research with PROSPERO.
  • Centre of Evidence Based Medicine
    The Centre of Evidence Based Medicine at the University of Oxford has produced some useful online resources for use in critical appraisal that can be used to assist research
  • Open Grey
    Open Grey is a website that harvests European Grey Literature. It has 700,000 open access references. Grey Literature is often hard to trace and this website tries to identify material that has been started in Europe
  • Recommended reading  
    These are just a few suggestions of readings that are appropriate for familiarising yourself with the process of conducting a Systematic Review or similar piece of research. This is not a totally comprehensive or exhaustive list
  • ISRCTN Registry
    The ISRCTN registry is a primary clinical trial registry recognised by WHO and ICMJE that accepts all clinical research studies (whether proposed, ongoing or completed), providing content validation and curation and the unique identification number necessary for publication. All study records in the database are freely accessible and searchable.
  • Campbell Collaboration
    Produces and disseminates systematic reviews of research evidence on the effectiveness of social interventions. The Campbell Collaboration library can be searched or browsed. The following co-ordinating groups can be browsed; Crime & Justice, Disability, Education, International Development, Knowledge Translation & Implementation, Nutrition, and Social Welfare. The Campbell Collaboration is a sibling organization of the Cochrane Collaboration. It was founded in 2000.
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