Thing 6: Systematic Reviews

Systematic reviews are the gold standard for answering a question that is informed by a base of evidence. The process is designed to explore the literature thoroughly and to make an unbiased decision based on research that meets your pre-set inclusion criteria. In this post we will explore the systematicreview process and introduce some tools and resources that can help you with this type of research study.

Getting Started

Begin by developing an appropriate research question for querying the literature. It should aim to not be too broad (e.g. “What can cure all cancers?”) and specific enough to interest other researchers and decision makers in the field. Decide on what resources may help to identify appropriate literature to answer the question. Most systematic reviews will query between 3 and 8 databases with a replicable search strategy. Sometimes the search strategy needs to be abbreviated to suit the abilities of databases with simple search query functionality. Make sure you make good use of subject heading structures in databases and search operators to reduce the volume of irrelevant material returned by your search. Librarians can assist with making the best use of each database. The next step is to combine the results from the various sources and de-duplicate. After this scan the titles and abstracts of your search results to decide on papers of interest. Gather the papers and apply a rigorous inspection against set inclusion and exclusion criteria to determine your final set of included papers.   

Once you have all of the research, develop a table of data items to collect about each study and start extracting. You should have at least two reviewers extract the study data from each paper to reduce bias. Also, assess the quality of the methodology applied in the study. Finally, you may be able to undertake a meta-analysis with similar findings or describe the findings covering key themes and key objectives to answer your research question.  Many journals now publish completed systematic reviews. Your research plan or protocol can also be published. 

Systematic Reviews at Melbourne University

The University of Melbourne has a strong track record in the publication of systematic reviews. Schools and departments involved in undertaking systematic reviews include the Melbourne School of Global and Population Health, the Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Paediatrics/MCRI and the School of Physiotherapy. Outside of the health care sphere systematic reviews are undertaken by the School of Engineering, School of Resource Management and Geography and Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Systematic reviews may also be undertaken in areas such as Music Therapy.  


Systematic reviews are undertaken within a methodological framework. There are various frameworks available but the most common for quantitative research reviews is PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Instrument for Sytematic reviews and Meta Analyses). This outlines 27 checklist items that should be included in a quantitative systematic review. The items are explained in a document called PRISMA Explanation and Elaboration (PRISMA E&E) which steps you through the process of applying the PRISMA checklist. Following the checklist not only makes your systematic review more likely to be published, it also improves the reading quality of your manuscript. 

Databases & Tools

PROSPERO (International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews)  

An international database of prospective systematic reviews in health and social care. Key features from the review protocol are recorded and maintained as a permanent record. Try exploring PROSPERO with a general topic term related to your research. As well as finding out about ongoing systematic reviews in your area, you can find great search strategies already presented that can help you in thinking about the way to build your own. 

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 

Try browsing the Cochrane Library by topic. Explore the best of systematic review design and outcomes in areas like Child Health, Effective practice & health systems or Public Health.   


Covidence is a web tool designed to support double-blind review and selection of items for inclusion in a systematic review. In 2015, Covidence was selected by Cochrane to become the standard production platform for Cochrane Reviews. At you can sign up for a free trial which allows you to apply the Covidence system for one systematic review.  You can also use the demonstration review to learn how to use the system effectively. The University Library has pre-purchased a number of Covidence licences for use by University of Melbourne teams of researchers undertaking reviews for publication. For details please contact us through the link to book a research consultation. 

Learn More

The Library’s Systematic Review Research Guide is a great place to start your planning for this type of research study. Our librarians can point you in the right direction with a research consultation.

This post was written by Patrick Condron (Senior Liaison Librarian (Research and Expert Searching), Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences).

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