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Systematic Reviews: Getting started

A guide to assist staff and students undertaking systematic reviews

Is a systematic review required?

Before undertaking a systematic review:

  • Check whether there are already existing or ongoing systematic reviews and whether a new review is justified . e.g. search Cochrane, subject databases (limiting to SRs), check registries such as PROSPERO.
  • Is a systematic review appropriate? Have you done a “scoping search”? Published reviews also provide a starting point for identifying studies in your area of research.
  • Do you have a clearly defined answerable question? Does the review have a clear objective?
  • Do you have time? (SRs can take 12-18 months)

Adapted from: Systematic reviews: CRD's guidance for undertaking reviews in health care


The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;
  • an explicit, reproducible 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; and
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies

Other types of reviews are not required to follow this rigorous, transparent process and therefore may be prone to bias.

Systematic review resources

Systematic reviews step by step: series of articles from JBI

This series on the systematic review from the Joanna Briggs Institute, an international collaborative supporting evidence-based practice in nursing, medicine, and allied health fields, shows nurses how to conduct a systematic review—one step at a time.

Aromataris, E., & Pearson, A. (2014). The systematic review: An overview. American Journal of Nursing, 114(3), 53-58. doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000444496.24228.2c

Stern, C., Jordan, Z., & McArthur, A. (2014). Developing the review question and inclusion criteria. American Journal of Nursing, 114(4), 53-56. doi: 10.1097/01.naj.0000445689.67800.86

Aromataris, E., & Riitano, D. (2014). Systematic reviews: Constructing a search strategy and searching for evidence. American Journal of Nursing, 114(5), 49-56. doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000446779.99522.f6

Porritt, K., Gomersall, J., & Lockwood, C. (2014). JBI's Systematic reviews: Study selection and critical appraisal. American Journal of Nursing, 114(6), 47-52. doi: 10.1097/01.naj.0000450430.97383.64

Munn, Z., Tufanaru, C., & Aromataris, E. (2014). JBI's Systematic reviews: Data extraction and synthesis.  American Journal of Nursing, 114(7), 49-54. doi: 10.1097/01.naj.0000451683.66447.89

Robertson-Malt, S. (2014). JBI's Systematic reviews: Presenting and interpreting findings. American Journal of Nursing, 114(8), 49-54. doi: 10.1097/01.naj.0000453044.01124.59

Getting started: useful references from Nursing Standard

Bettany-Saltikov, J. (2010). Learning how to undertake a systematic review: Part 1. Nursing Standard, 24(50), 47-56.
(see p.49 for a comparison of systematic and literature reviews: Table 1. "Similarities in and differences between systematic and literature reviews"). 

Bettany-Saltikov, J. (2010). Learning how to undertake a systematic review: Part 2. Nursing Standard, 24(51), 47-56.

Riesenberg, L. A., & Justice, E. M. (2014). Conducting a successful systematic review of the literature, part 1. Nursing, 44(4), 13-17. doi: 10.1097/

Riesenberg, L. A., & Justice, E. M. (2014). Conducting a successful systematic review of the literature, part 2. Nursing, 44(6), 23-26. doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000446641.02995.6a


Mahtani, K. R. (2016). All health researchers should begin their training by preparing at least one systematic review. Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, 109(7), 264–268.

What are systematic reviews?