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Systematic Reviews

Guides for conducting qualitative systematic reviews

Qualitative appraisal tools

Check for existing reviews

Check first to see if the review you are proposing has already been done, or is in the process of being done. This ensures that you are not repeating the work of another reviewer. As well as databases such as Medline or CINAHL, qualitative and mixed methods reviews may be found in:

Finding a qualitative review in Cochrane

Here is an example search strategy from Cochrane for the following research question:

Is cognitive behaviour therapy a useful intervention in the prevention of postnatal depression?

The strategy will search for qualitative systematic reviews of Condition OR Intervention.

  1. qualitative systematic review* OR (systematic review AND qualitative)
  2. evidence synthesis OR realist synthesis
  3. qualitative AND synthesis
  4. meta-synthesis* OR meta synthesis* OR metasynthesis
  5. meta-ethnograph* OR metaethnograph* OR meta ethnograph*
  6. meta-study OR metastudy OR meta study
  7. #1 OR #2 OR #3 OR #4 OR #5 OR #6 {combining qualitative systematic review synonyms}
  8. #7 AND postnatal depression {combining review terms 1-6 with Condition}
  9. #7 AND cognitive behaviour therapy {combining review terms 1-6 with Intervention}
  10. #8 OR #9 {Reviews of postnatal depression or  reviews of cognitive behaviour therapy}
Booth A. (2011). Chapter 3: Searching for Studies. In J. Noyes, A. Booth, K. Hannes, A. Harden, J. Harris, S. Lewin & C. Lockwood (Eds), Supplementary Guidance for Inclusion of Qualitative Research in Cochrane Systematic Reviews of Interventions. Cochrane Collaboration Qualitative Methods Group.

Searching for papers

Sources which should be searched to ensure comprehensive coverage include:

  1. Databases - see Where to Search in this guide to choose the best databases for the discipline involved. Include general databases such as Proquest for qualitative studies.
  2. Scopus and Web of Science - these are multidisciplinary citation databases.
  3. Clinical trial registers - see Where to Search > Grey Literature / Research in progress in this guide.
  4. Grey literature - see Where to Search > Grey Literature in this guide.
  5. Hand searching - choose key journals in the field and search tables of contents for specified publication dates.
  6. Relevant government and research organisations - search on the internet.


SPIDER Search Tool

SPIDER is an alternative system to PICO for defining a research question. For more information see

Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER Tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qualitative Health Research, 22(10), 1435-1443.

S= Sample

P,I = Phenomenon of Interest

D = Design

E = Evaluation

R = Research Type

EXAMPLE from Cooke et al above:

Reporting standards


STARLITE refers to the standards for reporting literature searches (Sampling strategy, Type of study, Approaches, Range of years, Limits, Inclusion and exclusions, Terms used, Electronic sources)

S = Sampling strategy

  • Comprehensive: attempts to identify all relevant studies;
  • Selective: attempts to identify all relevant studies but only within specified limit;
  • Purposive: samples from specific disciplines, years, journals

T = Type of studies

  • Fully reported: describes actual study types [e.g., grounded theory] or designs to be included;
  • Partially reported: uses an ‘‘umbrella’’ category such as ‘‘qualitative studies’’ without defining what this means

A = Approaches

  • Approaches other than electronic subject searches e.g. hand-searching, citation snowballing

R = Range of years

  • Fully reported: includes start and end dates with justification for time period chosen;
  • Partially reported: includes start and end dates but only determined available coverage of databases

L = Limits

  • Functional limits that are applied for logistic reasons but do not alter the topic conceptually (e.g., human, English etc.)

I = Inclusion and exclusions

  •  Conceptual limitations that mediate the scope of the topic area such as geographical location, setting, or a specific focus of study

T = Terms used

  • Fully present: example of a sample search strategy from one or more of the main database;
  • Partially present: reports terminology used but without evidence of search syntax and operators

E = Electronic sources

  • Reports databases used and, optimally, search platforms and vendors to assist in replication
From: Booth, A. (2006). "Brimful of STARLITE": Toward standards for reporting literature searches. Journal of the Medical Library Association,  94(4), 421-429, e205.