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Systematic review guide: Overview


The below image provides an overview of the process involved in conducting a systematic review. 
This guide has been designed to follow this process and provide opportunity for you to gain more information on each step as you click on the tabs above. 

Systematic reviews are originated in health and medicine disciplines, however they are also used in other disciplines including social sciences, sciences and engineering. This guide will provide a mixture of resources to cater for all disciplines. 

The Cochrane Library defines a systematic review:

A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view aimed at minimizing bias, to produce more reliable findings to inform decision making.

Key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  • an explicit, reproducible methodology
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria
  • an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies. (Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, 2022)


The table below provides a brief description of various reviews.  There are tools such as the 'what review is right for you?' that can assist in helping you decide which review to conduct. 

Type of Review Description
Systematic Review

Systematic reviews are the best known type of review in certain fields. They aim for exhaustive, comprehensive searching and recommendations for practice.

Characteristics include:

  • Draw together and appraise published knowledge within a particular area or topic.
  • Adhere to set guidelines for conduct.
  • Requires peer-review before publication.

Scoping Review

Scoping reviews provide an ‘environmental scan’ (preliminary assessment) of the literature that is currently available in an area of research.

Scoping reviews differ from mapping reviews as the outcome is only the review, not to conduct further reviews or research.

Characteristics include:

  • Be a quick search than can inform if a full review is needed.
  • Systematic approach.
Literature Review

Characteristics include:

  • establish a theoretical framework for your topic / subject area
  • define key terms, definitions and terminology
  • identify studies, models, case studies etc supporting your topic
  • define / establish your area of study, ie your research topic.
Integrative Review

Characteristics include:

  • Generate or refine a theory or hypothesis
  • Combine empirical and theoretical research
  • Examine research on a given health  phenomenon
  • Inform healthcare policy and practice

Meta-analysis provides statistical combination of the results of quantitative studies. They aim for exhaustive, comprehensive searching. Meta-analysis can be included in systematic reviews, but note that not all systematic reviews contain a meta-analysis.

Characteristics include:

  • Able to draw together smaller studies to contribute to larger picture of impact.
  • Time-efficient for decision makers, compared with reviewing individual studies.
Qualitative Review

Qualitative reviews are interpretative studies that can incorporate reports from users and observations from practitioners to allow for broader understanding than data-only would allow.

Characteristics include:

  • Allows for synthesis of non-statistical information.
  • Can highlight themes across individual studies.
  • Complements research evidence with reports from users and observations from practitioners.

For a more detailed list of review types, see:

JBI Big Picture Review Family image taken from Campbell, F., Tricco, A.C., Munn, Z. et al. (2023). Mapping reviews, scoping reviews, and evidence and gap maps (EGMs): the same but different— the “Big Picture” review family. Systematic Reviews 12,45. Includes 

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.

Munn, Z., Peters, M. D. J., Stern, C., Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A., & Aromataris, E. (2018). Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18(1), 143. 

Munn, Z., Stern, C., Aromataris, E., Lockwood, C., & Jordan, Z. (2018). What kind of systematic review should I conduct? A proposed typology and guidance for systematic reviewers in the medical and health sciences. BMC medical research methodology, 18(1), 5.