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Systematic Reviews: Getting Started

This guide provides an overview of the systematic review process.

“A Systematic Review attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. It uses explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view to minimizing bias, thus providing reliable findings from which conclusions can be drawn and decisions made."

The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with 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 bias; and
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.”

Liberati, Allessandro, et al, “The PRISMA Statement for Reporting Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis of Studies that Evaluate Health Care Interventions: Explanation and Elaboration,” PLoS Med. 2009; 6(7): 1-28.

Estimated Timeline for Completing a Cochrane Systematic Review
Month Activity
1-2 Preparation of Protocol
3-8 Searches for published and unpublished studies
2-3 Pilot test of eligibility criteria
3-8 Inclusion assessments
3 Pilot test of ‘Risk of bias’ assessment
3-10 Validity assessments
3 Pilot test of data collection
3-10 Data collection
3-10 Data entry
5-11 Follow up of missing information
8-10 Analysis
1-11 Preparation of review report
12- Keeping the review up-to-date

Source: Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from

Systematic Review Diagram

Adapted under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. from: YourHealthNet, "Navigating Effective Treatments With Systematic Reviews: An online toolkit that will help you understand and develop the skills to explore health research" developed and published by the Centre for Health Communication and Participation with support from the Australasian Cochrane Centre.