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Basics of developing and conducting a Systematic Review

A systematic review differs from a standard literature review in that it answers a very specific question, using very specific methodology. This also means that, structurally, it follows conventions that are more associated with research papers than with literature reviews. Writing a systematic review takes a lot of meticulous planning, in-depth research and rigour. Here, we go over a few things to consider when taking on a systematic review.

Purpose/Question for your review

It is vital to have a clearly defined purpose and rationale when setting out to do a systematic review. You can have multiple objectives or questions for your systematic review, but these need to be clearly stated in your introduction. It is crucial to be clear and focused about your objective because the more specific your question is, the more likely you are to actually provide an answer by the end of your research.

For instance, consider the following question:

Does cell therapy work?

This is a difficult one to answer, as it’s very broad.

Now, consider the following question:

Are stem cell therapies being used effectively for tissue regeneration?

This is a much more specific question. In fact, it can be made even more specific by defining what ‘effective’ means in this context, or even specifying what type of stem cell. 

Method/Protocol of the review

Many find that determining the methodology of their systematic review is the hardest part. You will likely benefit from figuring this out in plenty of detail at the start, just so you don’t run into situations where you aren’t sure about how to proceed. This includes everything, from inclusion and exclusion criteria, all the way to how to analyse and present your results. The purpose here is to make sure that you are presenting as unbiased a view as possible.

An indispensable tool here is the PRISMA checklist, which is designed to take researchers through the steps by which a systematic review is to be planned, carried out and presented. (You may visit the checklist site here.)

Common pitfalls in systematic reviews

There are common pitfalls in preparing reviews, most of which can be avoided with a thorough method by which to actually conduct it.

a. Not finding enough literature

This might have occurred because you have a certain preference in search engines, or are too specific with your search terms. 

Make sure that the search engine you use to collect literature is one that also has access to materials like archived journals or newspaper articles, such as PubMed or ScienceDirect. 

Also, try to use multiple, different ways of describing what you’re looking for. This is particularly important when looking through multiple types of sources, such as both academic journals and newspaper articles. An example of this is COVID19, which is referred to in several ways across different media – coronavirus, SARS-CoV19 and COVID, to name a few. Each of these terms are often used interchangeably, so be mindful of searching for all of these.

Tip: Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT and AND NOT) are useful here, whereby searching for ‘coronavirus OR COVID19’, for example, yields results for both search terms.

b. Not assessing the risk of bias in the included studies

Essentially, you need to screen for issues with the studies you are including that could give rise to bias within their results. Ideally, you would not want to include these, as it may sway your systematic review one way or another.

There are lots of ways to go about this, but there are robust methods for this out there for you to model your own method by, such as the Cochrane risk-of-bias tool. (In fact, the Cochrane library is also a good source for viewing examples of systematic reviews before you begin your review. You may visit the library site here.)

Avoiding common issues in systematic reviews

There are many more issues that can be seen in lesser quality systematic reviews, but you should be able to avoid these by:

  • Having a well-thought-out protocol
  • Paying close attention to the PRISMA checklist

In conclusion

Systematic reviews are a large task to take on. The most crucial part of the entire process is a robust protocol – once that is in place, you can go about reviewing all the necessary literature. However, ensure that your protocol includes vital tools that you can use to ensure that the quality of your publications passes certain checks, by seeing to it that only data of the highest quality are included in your paper.


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