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What is a Systematic Review?

"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 defined question with inclusion & exclusion criteria; rigorous & systematic search of the literature; critical appraisal of included studies; data extraction and management; analysis & interpretation of results; and report for publication."   -- Duke University Medical Center Library & Archives

A systematic review differs from a traditional literature review or narrative review, in that it aims to be as thorough and unbiased as possible, and also provides detailed information about how the studies were identified and why they were included.

Prior to starting your own research, you will want to look at existing systematic reviews - this is especially important so that you don't duplicate existing work. It can also be helpful to look at the approaches taken for systematic reviews similar to your own topic or discipline.  You can find existing systematic reviews a number of ways: 

  • They can published as journal articles – to identify them, add "systematic review" as an additional search term in databases, or look for limits if available. Here’s an example of a systematic review published as a journal article
  • Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: includes the full text of the regularly updated systematic reviews of the effects of healthcare prepared by The Cochrane Collaboration.
  • PROSPERO is an international database of prospectively registered systematic reviews in health and social care, welfare, public health, education, crime, justice, and international development, where there is a health related outcome. PROSPERO aims to provide a comprehensive listing of systematic reviews registered at inception to help avoid duplication and reduce opportunity for reporting bias by enabling comparison completed review with what was planned in the protocol.
  • The Campbell Collaboration is an international network which publishes high quality systematic reviews of social and economic interventions around the world

Below are some books available at the Ryerson University Library & Archives discussing systematic reviews:

For more Information see our in-depth guides: 

What is a Meta Analysis Study?


Meta-analysis is a research process used to systematically synthesize or merge the findings of multiple, independent studies, using statistical methods to calculate an overall effect. 

  Systematic review Meta-analysis
METHOD Systematically search for, appraise, and synthesize research evidence Statistically combine the results of quantitative studies to provide a more precise effect of the results
FORMAT Results are typically narrative, may have tabular component Results are graphical and tabular with narrative commentary
CONTENT Analyzes what is known; recommendations for practice. Identifies what remains unknown; uncertainty around findings, recommendations for future research Numerical analysis of measure of effect assuming absence of heterogeneity.

University of Manitoba Libraries - Systematic / Meta-analysis reviews



Møller, A.M and Myles, P.S.(2016) What makes a good systematic review and meta-analysis?BJA: British Journal of Anaesthesia 117(4): 428–430.

Munn Z et al. (2018)Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach.  BMC Medical Research Methodology.18:143.

Uman, L. S. (2011). Systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(1), 57.