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Systematic Reviews: A How-To Guide

Overview of systematic review steps and resources to assist researchers conducting reviews

Effectively Sharing Your Research

The best way to share your systematic review findings with the research community is to prepare a well-written report. Clarity is key: readers should be able to follow, and potentially replicate, every step of your review process. There are a number of well-known standards, handbooks, and guides available for you to follow; on this page, we outline a few of the basics.

The PRISMA Checklist and Flow Diagram

The PRISMA Checklist can serve as an outline for your systematic review report. There are 27 items on the checklist. It begins with the simple inclusion of a title and abstract, and goes on to outline the introduction, methods, results, and discussion portions of your report. It also suggests that you clearly state all sources of funding.

To download an editable template of the PRISMA Checklist, click below:

Existing hand in hand with the PRISMA Checklist, the PRISMA Flow Diagram facilitates accurate reporting of your search process. It displays the number of studies involved at each stage of your research. Click below to download an editable template:

Handbooks and Standards

Reporting Your Search Methods

Your systematic review should be designed with the research community in mind. Other researchers might want to explore the details of your search. Future research teams might want to replicate your review in order to follow up on your findings. To make these things possible, you must report every detail of your search methodology.

Your search methods should be explained at varying levels of detail in multiple areas of your report.

Abstract

In a dedicated section in your review abstract, briefly explain your search methods. State the databases used and the timeframe of your searches. You may also include a very brief description of your research question, core concepts, search criteria, and search process.

Methods Section

An entire section of your report should be dedicated to explaining the methods used to complete the review. Within this section, expand upon the search methods outlined in your abstract. This is also the place to thoroughly detail your search strategy, outline your inclusion and exclusion criteria, state the number of results at each phase of your search process, explain your screening procedures, and describe how data was extracted and analysed. If a methodological expert (librarian, statistician, etc.) contributed to the search or analyses, they may be best suited to write the relevant parts of this section to reflect their contributions accurately. If you used the PRISMA Checklist and Diagram, you can include these in the review's appendix.

Appendix

In your review's appendix, include your entire search strategy. This is the best way to make your review reproducible by others. We recommend displaying your strategy in table format, with separate columns for each database. Below is an example of a search strategy table:

The Forest Plot

Generic forest plot

James Grellier / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Forest plots are a standard way of visualizing the results of a systematic review. The summary measure, represented by a diamond in the above example, is the overall statistical result of the data analysis.

Forest plots are recommended for inclusion in systematic reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration. RevMan, Cochrane's free reference manager, can also be used to produce forest plots.

How to Interpret a Forest Plot

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