Skip to main content
The University of Edinburgh home
Show/hide site search
Information Services

Literature review & study skills resources for intercalating medical students

What is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review is a particular type of literature review. It is a comprehensive overview of primary studies which is explicit in it's identification of published and unpublished literature and it's approach to minimise bias, and is conducted in a way that is reproducible and transparent. (Greenhalgh, T. 2019. How to read a paper: the basics of evidence-based medicine, 6th ed. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd)

This page contains sources of guidance on doing a systematic review, on literature searching as data collection, and on other related aspects of the systematic review process.



The Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions outlines the key characteristics of a systematic review:

  • 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;
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies

(Higgins, J. P. T.; Cochrane Collaboration., 2019. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions, Chichester, England ; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. p. xxiii)

Cochrane Interactive Learning

Guidance on doing a systematic review

Are you sure you are being asked to do a Systematic Review?

Clarify with you supervisor that it's a systematic review that you are expected to do, as this is a very particular methodology. Systematic reviews can be demanding and time-consuming, and the Cochrane Collaboration recommend they be undertaken by a team (Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions, 2019).

It may be you are expected to do a structured literature review, which is similar but may be less involved than a full systematic review approach.

Writing a protocol

Writing a study protocol for your review is an important step in a systematic review. It should state your research question, sub-groups of interest, methods of identifying literature, criteria for selecting relevant studies, and methods of data extraction and analysis. (Altman, D., Egger, M., & Smith, G. (2001). Systematic reviews in health care meta-analysis in context (Second ed.). London: BMJ.)

A protocol is important in minimising bias, by promoting transparency and replicability. It can also act as a useful indicator to your supervisor that you have considered the feasibility of the topic and have anticipated potential challenges. (Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D. (2016). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review (Second ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.)

Choosing a reference management software tool

Reference management software lets you store, annotate and group references and also automatically creates citations and reference lists in your documents.

For a systematic review, good record keeping and reference management is important for recording and transparency, and it is likely you will be dealing with a large amount of references. 

There are a number of different reference management software tools available. For a systematic review we would usually recommend using the desktop version of EndNote, available on University-networked PCs (eg in the library or computer labs)

For help in deciding which is right for you, please see our software comparison table.


PRISMA Flow Diagram for reporting your review process

Flow diagram demonstrating the stages of a systematic review.The PRISMA flow diagram depicts the flow of information through the different phases of a systematic review. It maps out the number of records identified, included and excluded, and the reasons for exclusions. 

A Word document and PDF template are available for download on the PRISMA website. 

For more information about citing and using PRISMA, see the webpage on Citing PRISMA from the website (for authors)