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Systematic and Systematic-like Reviews

What is a systematic review?

"The idea of a systematic review is a nonsense, and the sooner those advocates of it are tried at the International Court of Human Rights in the Hague (or worse still, sent for counseling), the better." (Rees, 2002).

Nevertheless, since Rees made these comments, systematic reviews have shown their worth as crucial to the evidence-based practice of health care professionals in particular. They are also increasingly being used in other disciplines such as psychology, education, sociology, environmental science, engineering and business management.

"A systematic review attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. It uses explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view to minimizing bias, thus providing more reliable findings from which conclusions can be drawn and decisions made." (Cochrane Handbook, V. 5.1.0, 2011)

 Key characteristics include:

  • a clearly defined topic, with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  • a systematic and reproducible search strategy
  • the critical appraisal of included studies
  • a synthesis and systematic presentation of the findings of the included studies
NOTE: A Meta-analysis is a statistical way to combine the data extracted from a systematic review. Every meta-analysis has a systematic review behind it, but not every systematic review results in a meta-analysis!

Rees, J. L. (2002). Two cultures? Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 46(2), 313-314. doi:10.1067/mjd.2002.120618

What's the difference between reviews?

Researchers, academics and librarians all use various terms to describe different types of literature reviews. The table below has been adapted from a widely used typology of fourteen types of reviews, but here we describe four of the most common types:

REVIEW TYPES DESCRIPTION APPROXIMATE TIMEFRAME NO. OF REVIEWERS
Systematic review Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesise research evidence in order to aid decision-making and determine best practice. Systematic reviews can vary in their approach, and are often specific to the type of study: studies of effectiveness, qualitative research, economic evaluation, prevalence, aetiology or risk, diagnostic test accuracy and so on. 8 months to 2 years 2 or more
Rapid review Assesses what is known about an issue by using a systematic review method to search and appraise research and determine best practice. 2-6 months 2
Scoping review Assesses the potential scope of the research literature on a particular topic. Helps determine gaps in the research. 2-8 weeks 1
Traditional (narrative) literature review A generic review which identifies and reviews published literature on a topic, which may be broad. Typically employs a narrative approach to reporting the review findings. Can include a wide range of related subjects. 1-4 weeks 1

For a more detailed list of review types, see:

Grant, M.J. & Booth, A. (2009).  A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91-108.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

See also our Library Resource Guide, Literature Review.

Take our quick quiz to guide you to the best review for you

With thanks and acknowledgements to Deakin University Library.