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Systematic Review Process 

How does one start and navigate a systematic review? While the approach that each researcher takes to a systematic review may change depending on their research question, their field of interest, and resource availability, there are some common guidelines you can follow to help structure your review. We return to Harris Cooper, who has written numerous handbooks on step-by-step approaches to Research Synthesis and Meta-Analysis. You will find that many researchers use the terms "research synthesis" and "systematic review" interchangeably. This is totally fine! What's most important is understanding the distinction between research syntheses and systematic reviews as a strategic evaluation of the literature. This contrasts with meta-analysis, which again, is a set of statistical methods for analyzing effect sizes. So, what are the steps of a Systematic Review? You can find a general overview of the process below.

Visit our Video Guides for Systematic Reviews page for more information on each step. You can also reference our Lecture Videos for more in-depth instruction on systematic review processes. 

Step 1: Problem Formulation 

This first step of the systematic review is where you will establish the conceptual foundation and rationale of your systematic review.

During this step you will:

  1. Identify a relevant theoretical framework for your review (if applicable) 

  2. Construct your research question(s)

  3. Develop your hypothesis

  4. Define your variables and outcome(s) of interest 

  5. Justify your systematic review within the context of your field's body of literature

  6. Identify preliminary eligibility criteria 

The Problem Formulation + Research Questions video guide provides more information on this step.

Step 2: Searching the Literature

After formulating your problem and creating your research question you can begin preparing to search the literature.

During this step you will:

  1. Develop a reproducible search strategy 

  2. Identify information sources for primary studies (e.g. databases, peer-reviewed journals, grey literature) 

  3. Store your primary studies in a reference management tool

  4. Document the number of studies found through your search strategy

The Searching the Literature 1-3 and the Zotero Demonstration video guides provide more information on this step. 

Step 3: Gathering Information from Studies 

Once you have a pool of potentially relevant studies, you will want to screen them to determine if they fit your eligibility criteria. This step involves many activities. During this step you will: 

  1. Screen the titles and abstracts of your studies for relevance 

  2. Include or exclude studies whose titles and abstracts meet your eligibility criteria 

  3. Screen the full-text of studies that have passed the first round of screening 

  4. Include studies whose full-text information meets your eligibility criteria 

  5. Code studies based on the variables of interest in your review 

  6. Extract statistical information based on the outcomes of interest in your review 

  7. Assess your final pool of studies for quality and risk of bias

  8. Document the number of studies that remain after the title/abstract and full-text screening stages 

The Screening the Literature 1-3, Coding the Literature 1-3, as well as the Rayyan demonstration for title, abstract, and full-text screening Video Guides are helpful in navigating this step. 

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