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Systematic Reviews

A guide to conducting and managing literature searches for systematic reviews for Southern Cross University researchers.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review uses explicit methods to perform a comprehensive literature search and critical appraisal of selected studies, using appropriate statistical techniques.

Key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  • an explicit, reproducible search strategy and 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
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies (Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, 2008, p. 6).

A systematic review may include a meta analysis, which uses quantitative methods to synthesize and summarize the results.

Systematic review service charter

Similiarities and differences between systematic and literature reviews

Read these articles for more information on different types of reviews: 

Reproduced from: Bettany-Saltikov, J. (2010). Learning how to undertake a systematic review: Part 1. Nursing Standard, 24(40): p. 47-55.


Systematic Review

Literature Review


Focused on a single question

Not necessarily focused on a single question, but may describe an overview


A peer review protocol or plan is included

No protocol is included


Both provide summaries of the available literature on a topic


Clear objectives are identified

Objectives may or may not be identified

Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Criteria stated before the review is conducted

Criteria not specified

Search Strategy

Comprehensive search conducted in a systematic way

Strategy not explicitly stated

Process of Selecting Articles

Usually clear and explicit

Not described in a literature review

Process of Evaluating Articles

Comprehensive evaluation of study quality

Evaluation of study quality may or may not be included

Process of Extracting Relevant Information

Usually clear and specific

Not clear or explicit

Results and Data Synthesis

Clear summaries of studies based on high quality evidence

Summary based on studies where the quality of the articles may not be specified. May also be influenced by the reviewer's theories, needs and beliefs


Written by an expert or group of experts with a detailed and well grounded knowledge of the issues