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A Research Guide for Systematic Literature Reviews

Systematic Reviews

According to the Cochrane Handbook, section 1.2.2, "a systematic review attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question."

The 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; and
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Source: Green, S., Higgins, J.P.T., Alderson, P., Clarke, M., Mulrow, C.D., Oxman, A.D. (2008). Chapter 1: Introduction. In: Higgins, J.P.T., Green, S. (Eds.), Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions. The Cochrane Collaboration.


A systematic review is a lengthy process. Here is a general timeline for conducting a systematic review: 

Month Activity
1-2 Preparation of protocol
3-8 Searches for published and unpublished studies
2-3 Pilot test of eligibility criteria 
3-8 Inclusion assessments 
3 Pilot test of 'Risk of bias' assessment
3-10 Validity assessments
3 Pilot test of data collection
3-10 Data collection
3-10 Data entry
5-11 Follow up of missing information
8-10 Analysis
1-11 Preparation of review report
12- Keeping the review up to date

Source: Green, S. and Higgins, J.P. (2008). Preparing a cochrane review. In J.P. Higgins and S. Green (eds.), Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions

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