Review this page to learn what you need for a successful systematic review and how the medical library can help.
What You Need to Complete a Systematic Review
Topic: You should have a well-developed question that is searchable and does not duplicate recent existing systematic reviews or ongoing systematic projects registered in PROSPERO.
- Team: A systematic review is not a solo project. You will need
- Topic Experts who are subject experts about the topic of the review. This can often include clinicians or scientists from multiple disciplines to address different aspects of the topic. For example, a systematic review about childhood feeding difficulties might include topic experts such as a pediatrician, an occupational therapist, a child psychologist, and a registered dietician.
- Search Experts, who are librarians trained in systematic review methods. This will ensure your systematic review is based on a well-constructed, well-documented, and peer-reviewed search that can meet current systematic review standards for best practices. Journal editors increasingly look for the involvement of expert searchers and some engage librarians as peer reviewers for this type of submission.
- Methods Experts: Having team members with experience with instruments and methods for reviewing literature for quality and bias is helpful. If you hope to do a meta-analysis along with your systematic review, you should have team members with expertise in this methodology as well as with statistical methods. All team members should be somewhat familiar with existing methods guides, such as those from Cochrane (1).
- Time: On average, systematic review projects are estimated to take one year or more from
the start of protocol development to a completed manuscript. (2).
- A Systematic Approach: An appropriately conducted systematic review project will begin with development of a protocol defining the planned approach to searching and analysis. Without an advance protocol, your project is likely not a real systematic review. PRISMA provides suggestions on items to include in a protocol (3), and PROSPERO’s registration guidance (4) can also help inform what should be documented in your protocol.
Without all the above elements in place, your work a) may not be considered a real
systematic review and b) is unlikely to be successfully published in a reputable journal.
What We Can Provide
- Advice on whether a systematic review is an appropriate project for your team, topic, and timeline.
- Consultation on your draft protocol.
- Expertly developed, peer reviewed, and carefully documented search strategies in multiple appropriate databases, informed by PRISMA-S reporting standards (5).
- Search results exported for EndNote and imported into the systematic review software of your choice.
- Help choosing and learning software such as citation management or systematic review software.
- Write-up of search methodology for your publication submissions.
- Data on search result numbers required for your PRISMA flow diagram.
In some cases, we are able to provide librarian time for assistance with the title/abstract and full-text screening stage of the review.
Please note: we have a limited librarian team with many responsibilities for instruction, research, collections, outreach, and service. At times we may need to decline to take on new systematic review projects for capacity reasons. Priority will be given to those projects with well-developed requests and protocols that are most likely to be successful.
To Get Started
Fill out a request for systematic review support via the form at https://forms.office.com/r/9GkWMJvAuy. To do so, you will need:
- To have read all of the information provided on this page; you will be asked to confirm you have done so
- Your research question
- To complete a preliminary search to determine if any systematic reviews on your topic already exist and if any ongoing SRs are registered in PROSPERO (4); please save your preliminary search and findings to share with the librarians so we can understand what you have done so far
- Details about your team and timeline
- Examples of published articles you would want to retrieve for your review; these help
us test our search strategies to determine whether they are retrieving important known
When librarians play a vital role in systematic review projects, such as by developing searches and writing methods, they should be credited as authors on any publications or presentations and correspondingly should have the opportunity to review any drafts prior to publication. This corresponds to ICJME standards for authorship be based on four criteria (5), quoted below:
- Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Some software, such as EndNote, includes features that aid in retrieving the abstracts and full-text articles of the references included in your search results. Retrieval of articles beyond these automated approaches is the responsibility of the systematic review PI and team. Library team members can be of assistance in ordering articles ETSU does not have via the interlibrary loan services. The PI is responsible for all costs associated with requesting and receiving these articles.
If you have grant funding related to your project and would like to offset the cost of the librarian’s time on your project, please contact the library director, Associate Dean Rachel Walden. If you have questions about paying for Interlibrary Loan Services, contact Kelly Loyd.
Common Mistakes in Systematic Reviews
Common problems in approaches to systematic review methods include:
- Searches that fail to use appropriate keywords and controlled vocabulary
- Searches that omit key databases
- Poorly documented searches that are not replicable
- Failure to develop a robust protocol in advance of beginning searches or abstract review
- Failure to engage librarian experts in search development
- Lack of peer review for search strategies
- Lack of dual review and an adjudication plan for title/abstract and full-text review
- Lack of justification for limits used in searching
- Lack of an advance plan for data extraction and review of articles for quality/bias
- Insufficient team member expertise on the topic of the review (such as when assigned to students)
- Unrealistic project timelines
- General failure to follow standards in methods and reporting
But My Professor/Faculty Advisor/Mentor Told Me to “Just Do a Systematic Review”
Systematic reviews have become a popular research approach, but many people misunderstand them. Sometimes well-meaning faculty will advise students or residents to complete a systematic review as an “easy” research project without fully understanding the methods and resources required. These misunderstandings often lead to the development of poorly done “systematic reviews” that lack the required systematic methods defined in an appropriate protocol, lack well-developed and well-documented search strategies, and fail to follow other methodological and reporting standards (1,4,6,7) that peer reviewers should look for when considering the manuscript for publication.
A systematic review is not a suitable project for a single student/resident with no prior experience in this methodology. It also is generally not an appropriate project for a single student and a single faculty advisor who is not an expert on systematic review methodology. Most health science graduate students have not had the appropriate experience or training to independently develop robust protocols and search strategies for systematic reviews. A lack of familiarity with appropriate methods for SR projects is very likely to lead to wasted time and unpublishable work. A systematic review is not an appropriate short-term project; systematic reviews can take an average of a year or more to complete (2).
We recommend that students instructed to do a systematic review without appropriate support share the above statement with their faculty. We are available for consultation on when and for whom a systematic review is an appropriate project. We can also recommend training courses for faculty who are interested in further participating in and engaging students in future systematic review research.
- Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.2 (updated February 2021). Cochrane, 2021. Available from training.cochrane.org/handbook
- Borah R, Brown AW, Capers PL, et al. Analysis of the time and workers needed to conduct systematic reviews of medical interventions using data from the PROSPERO registry. BMJ Open 2017;7:e012545. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012545
- “PRISMA for Systematic Review Protocols (PRISMA-P)” http://www.prisma-statement.org/Extensions/Protocols
- University of York Centre for Reviews and Dissemination. “Registering a Review on PROSPERO.” https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/prospero/#guidancenotes
- Rethlefsen, M.L., Kirtley, S., Waffenschmidt, S. et al. PRISMA-S: an extension to the PRISMA Statement for Reporting Literature Searches in Systematic Reviews. Syst Rev 10, 39 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-020-01542-z
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. “Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors.” http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “Methods Guide for Effectiveness and Comparative Effectiveness Reviews.” https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/cer-methods-guide/overview/
- Institute of Medicine. 2011. Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13059. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13059/finding-what-works-in-health-care-standards-for-systematic-reviews