A Comprehensive Guide to Performing Systematic Literature Review

With growing importance of research, huge amount of studies, often with conflicting findings are being published every year. The difference in the findings may occur due to sample variation or any other flaws. In such situations, identifying the most reliable results can be confusing.

Literature reviews are performed with varying standards, ranging from annotated bibliography to rigorously synthesising scientific body of research. One such rigorous approach is systematic literature review (SLR). 

Systematic review is characterised by replicable, objective and transparent. It involves a systematic search process to identify studies that address a systematic presentation, specific research question and findings & characteristics of the results. 

Some of the features of great SLR are: 

  • Identifies contradictions, gaps, relations, and inconsistencies in the literature
  • Describes to what extent the study has succeeded in clarifying the research problem
  • Comments, evaluates and develops theories
  • Gives scope for future research
  • Formulates general statements
  • Offers implications for policy and practice

Since systematic review addresses more broader research questions than single empirical study and has the potential to offer practical implications, systematic review remains on the top of hierarchy of evidence.  

How to conduct systematic literature review process?

The key stages involved in conducting a systematic review process are as mentioned below.

  • Formulate research questions

Systematic review begins with formulating research questions. Determine what you want to know about the topic? Who are the target audience? These questions will let you formulate answerable research questions. For example, “ is family therapy a solution for depression?” will generate focused set of answers than “ how people suffering from depression can be helped?” A well-formulated question can be achieved by evaluating narrow research question. 

  • Identify the existing SLR

To avoid developing a systematic review that already exists and does not need further updation, familiarise with the literature. This will help you save time and also provide a rationale as to why the updated review is being conducted. Some examples rationales for performing updated systematic review include (a) it has been a while since the last systematic review on your topic of study and the literature has expanded (b) last review included flaws which will be addressed in the present review (c) the previous focused on factor ‘a’ and you think it is better to focus on factor ‘b’. If the existing review if relatively new and addresses the similar question (s) then such reviews can be used for reading for your study. 

  • Segregate research question (s)

Divide research question (s) into individual concepts to generate search terms. Search terms will allow you to optimise the research question (s) and find potentially relevant articles for your study. You can also use alternate terms to address the same question and common terms to address the same phenomenon. Consider using synonyms, broader/narrower terms, different spelling (color/colour), verbal forms, singular/plural forms, etc. 

  • Formulate inclusion & exclusion criteria

Based on the literature, formulate the list of unbiased inclusion and exclusion criteria to address the research question (s). Apply these criteria throughout the systematic review process. However, the inclusion and exclusion criteria will depend on the topic of review, empirical, theoretical and methodological issues. On choosing the exclusion and inclusion criteria, justify the reason for choosing the same. Some of the common inclusion and exclusion criteria include: research question, conceptualisation, key variables, research design, time frame, participants, and data. Remember, the reader will interpret the findings and conclusions of the systematic review within the context of the inclusion and exclusion criteria.  

  • Locate data sources

The next step is to identify published and unpublished sources to address the research question. One of the best ways to identify the sources is to look for them in the electronic databases. This is achieved by: (a) choosing databases that are relevant to the topic, (b) choosing filters and limits within the databases to search by subject categories, article types, sub-headings, etc. (c) searching by proximity, (d) excluding jargon, (e) using parentheses, truncation, publication year, etc. 

  • Investigate search results

Examine the search results. Do the results suggest the inclusion and exclusion criteria are reliable, are they balancing sensitivity and specificity, do the results revise inclusion & exclusion criteria, do the search results add value to the existing search results, etc.

  • Data extraction & analysis 

Extract the relevant and applicable information from the search results. Group the information according to their methodological similarities. Address the numerical and statistical approach. 

  • Present the systematic review 

Adhere to the guidelines that describe how to report the systematic review. Present flow diagrams, use template for formatting, and organise the review as directed by the goals. 

Key Takeaway – 

The inclusion and exclusion criteria are objective, consistently implemented and explicitly stated.

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