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Systematic Reviews: the process: Home

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.

How can the Library help?

Research librarians can partner with current Duke Health faculty, staff, and students on systematic reviews.

Add us to your author team and we will design and manage complex, thorough searches in multiple databases. We will also provide you with:

  • Covidence workspace with de-duplicated results,
  • tables with detailed, reproducible search strategies, &
  • a narrative of the search methodology.

To get started:

  1. review our policies
  2. look over and complete our literature search planning form
  3. email us to set up a consultation (attach the planning form to the email).

What does it take to do a systematic review?

Time: On average, systematic reviews require 18 months from start to finish.

A team: A systematic review can't be done alone! You need to work with subject experts to clarify issues related to the topic; librarians to develop comprehensive search strategies and identify appropriate databases; reviewers to screen abstracts and read the full text; a statistician who can assist with data analysis (if you are doing a meta-analysis); and a project leader to coordinate and write the final report.

A clearly defined question: Clarify the key question(s) of you systematic review and the rationale for each question. Use the PICO framework to identify key concepts of the question. Determine inclusion/exclusion criteria.

A written protocol: You need to write a protocol outlining the study methodology. The protocol should include the rationale for the systematic review, key questions broken into PICO components, inclusion/exclusion criteria, literature searches for published/unpublished literature, data abstraction/data management, assessment of methodological quality of individual studies, data synthesis, and grading the evidence for each key question.

Need help writing a protocol? See the University of Warwick's protocol template.

A registered protocol: After you write the protocol, you should register it with a review registry. There are numerous review registries available, such as PROSPERO or OSF. Registration is free and open to anyone undertaking systematic reviews. Some journals also publish systematic review protocols.

For more information about registering protocols & PROSPERO, see:
Best practices in systematic reviews: the importance of protocols & registration
An international registry of systematic review protocols

Comprehensive literature searches: First, identify systematic reviews that may address your key questions. Then, identify appropriate databases and conduct comprehensive and detailed literature searches that can be documented and duplicated.

Citation management: You should have working knowledge of EndNote to help manage citations retrieved from literature searches.

Follow reporting guidelines: Use appropriate guidelines for reporting your review for publication.

For more information about the nuances of conducting systematic reviews, contact your Medical Center Librarian!

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