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Systematic Reviews: Planning your review

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.

Read our post 'Using frameworks to structure your search' for an introduction to PICO, PECO, and SPIDER search frameworks.

Patient Problem, (or Population) Intervention, Comparison or Control, and Outcomes (PICO)
Population, Exposure, Comparator, and Outcomes (PECO)
Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type (SPIDER)

Creating a structure

When embarking on a systematic review you need to be clear of your objectives. Carefully consider the parameters of your research before you start, including scope and time span. 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. 

Whether a new study or a review of earlier thinking, systematic reviews are measured against a set of specific criteria outlined at the start.

Discipline span

When embarking on your initial research, consider whether it covers several disciplines. If it does, ask yourself the following questions:

  • which disciplines?
  • what are my search criteria?
  • what could be other researchers' search criteria be?
  • which database/s and other resources should I use?
  • do I need to streamline my search?

If your research doesn't cover multiple disciplines, consider:

  • how specialised is my research?
  • which database/s and other resources should I use?
  • will I need to compromise/re-define my search terms?

It will be easier to get started if you think about how your research connects to a wider audience/research group. Other professions may approach the same area/s you are interested in from a different viewpoint and may use different search terms and phrases to the ones you may initially think of. 

Evaluating Articles

If you are new to research you might find it useful to complete this online resource in evaluating your sources. The resource show you how asking questions can help you establish the reliability, objectivity and relevance of the evidence you find.

Useful links

  • Being digital - The Open University This set of skills is known as digital literacy. Developing these skills will give you the confidence to work successfully and safely online.
  • 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 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. Please note this resource may no longer be being updated.
  • 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. Click the Close icon when you arrive on the page to see the reading list, if you can't already see it.
  • 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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