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Systematic and Systematic-Style Reviews


Define your search topic

A well-defined research topic will ensure that the scope of the review is focused, the search strategy is effective, and the results are relevant and useful. The question should be specific and answerable, and the scope of the review should be well-defined. It employs systematic and explicit techniques that are designed to reduce bias and produce more dependable results that can be used to draw conclusions and make decisions (Cochrane Handbook, 1.1)

Inclusion & exclusion criteria

Inclusion and exclusion criteria are essential components of creating parameters for your systematic review. They should be transparent and replicable. Some inclusion and exclusion criteria to consider, sourced from The Queensland University of Technology are:

Date Date rest restrictions are not usually applied unless updating an existing review or investigating a topic which has only existed in a specific time period. 
Geography Some reviews focus on populations in specific locations such as developing countries or rural communities. 
Participants The review may focus on a specific age group or gender.
Setting A question may investigate a phenomenon in a specific setting such as experiences in a hospital, online, or at ante natal classes. 
Study design Specific study design investigates different types of research questions. For example; treatment questions are best answered by clinical or randomised control trials or prognosis question by prospective cohort studies. Thus, study design can be used as exclusion/exclusion criteria. 
Publication type Systematic reviews synthesise primary research papers. However, it is NOT recommended to exclude other types of publications as relevant and vital information may be missed such as erratum. There are reviews which include only peer-reviewed publications, but some topics require inclusion of grey literature such as reports and conference papers. 
Language Reviews should aim to be as comprehensive as possible and NOT be restricted by language. 


Useful resources

These resources may assist to better inform your decisions:

Techniques & frameworks

The PICO framework is a tool used in evidence-based medicine and research to help clarify, organise and form research questions to facilitate the literature search. The PICO framework will guide you to develop an answerable research question that is based on evidence.

PICO is an acronym for:

  • P: Population or Patient or Problem
  • I: Intervention or Exposure
  • C: Comparison(s) 
  • O: Outcome

Not all research questions will require all four elements. The choice of which elements to include will depend on the specific research question and the available evidence (Cochrane Handbook, 2.3).

Use the below tutorial to help you develop your PICO skills.

Other question frameworks

PICO  is a commonly used framework for developing research questions in systematic reviews. However, depending on the research question and topic, another framework or approach may be more appropriate.

Explore these frameworks below or consider one of the many other models in the guide from the CQ University link below. The guide from Macquarie University provides tips on selecting a framework and relevant articles in using the tools. 

ECLIPSE: Expectation, Client group, Location, Impact, Professionals, Service (focused on health policy information).

SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type (focused on qualitative and mixed methods primary research).

SPICE: Setting, Perspective (or Population), Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation (focused on the evaluation of specific interventions). 

PECO: Population, Exposure, Comparison, Outcome (PECO is a variant of PICO which looks at Exposure instead of Intervention).

Ultimately, the choice of framework or approach for your systematic review will depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of your research question, the available literature, and the preferences of your team and stakeholders.