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Research Tips: What is a Systematic Review and how does it differ from a Literature Review?

Research tips, support, strategies and FAQs

What is a Systematic Review?

'In basic terms, a systematic review is a protocol-driven, comprehensive literature review, usually designed to answer a specific clinical question'  (Mayo Clinic Libraries)

For a more detailed definition see Clarifying differences between review designs and methods by David Gough, James Thomas & Sandy Oliver

Also see Systematic Reviews tab on the Clinical Guidelines and EBP Resources page and the  Systematic Review Guide by Curtin University Library.

How does a Systematic Review differ from a Literature Review?





            Systematic Reviews          


  Literature Reviews


Focused on a single question (often PICO based)

Not necessarily focused on a single question - may describe an overview


A peer reviewed protocol or plan is included

No protocol included


Summarises the available literature

Summarises the available literature


Clear objectives are identified

Objectives may or may not be identified

Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

Criteria stated before the review is conducted

Criteria not stated

Search Strategy

Comprehensive and systematic (stated in the document)

Strategy not explicitly stated (not always comprehensive or systematic)

Process of Selecting Articles

Usually clear and explicit

Not described in a literature review

Process of Evaluating Articles

Comprehensive evaluation of study quality

Evaluation of study quality may or may not be included

Process of Extracting Information

Usually clear and specific

Not clear or explicit

Results & Data Synthesis

Clear summaries of studies based on high quality evidence

Summary based on studies where the quality of the articles may not be specified. May also be influenced by the reviewer's therories, needs and beliefs.


Written by an expert or group of experts with a detailed and well grounded knowledge of the issues

Written by an expert or group of experts with a detailed and well grounded knowledge of the issues

(from Curtin University Library's Systematic Review guide)



Do I want to undertake a Systematic Review?

Before beginning a Systematic Review ask yourself:

  • Do I have a clearly defined clinical question with estabalished inclusion and exclusion criteria?
  • Do I have a team of at least 3 people?
  • Do I have time to go through as many search results as we might find?
  • Do I have resources to get foreign-language articles appropriately translated?
  • Do I have the statistical resources to analyse the pool data?

If you answered No to any of the first 4 questions, a traditional literature review will be more appropriate. If you answered No to the last question, a meta-analysis will not be an appropriate methodolgy for your review. (from Liblog// Newsletter of the Mayo Clinic Libraries)

For a quick alternative to a systematic review see TRIP Rapid Reviews under the Specific searches / search filters tab.

Systematic Review Standards - Include a Librarian on your team!

The Institute of Medicine issued Standards for Systematic Review Teams in 2010, including a set of standards specifically about conducting searches. The first standard for searching (3.1.1) states that systematic review teams should work with a librarian to plan the search strategy.