Skip to main content

Systematic Reviews: Getting Started

So you are thinking about doing a systematic review...

Welcome to Systematic Reviews

Systematic reviews are gaining in popularity at medical research institutions across the US. Guidelines either state the need for or highly recommend the involvement of a librarian or information professional in systematic review research. The J Otto Lottes Health Sciences Library offers several resources and services to support systematic review research. 


Steps involved for a Systematic Review  

  1. Develop an answerable question 
  2. Check for recent systematic reviews  
  3. Agree on specific inclusion and exclusion criteria 
  4. Develop a system to organize data and notes
  5. Devise reproducible search methods 
  6. Launch and track exhaustive search 
  7. Organize search results 
  8. Reproduce search results 
  9. Abstract data into a standardized format
  10. Synthesize data using statistical methods (meta-analysis)  
  11. Write about what you found  

Guide Credits

Thanks to Susan Fowler at the University of Washington-St. Louis for allowing us to modify her Systematic Reviews guide for the Mizzou community!

What You Need To Conduct a Systematic Review

Time (18 months, average)

The average systematic review requires 18 months of work. “…to find out about a healthcare intervention it is worth searching research literature thoroughly to see if the answer is already known. This may require considerable work over many months…” (Cochrane Collaboration)

If that timeline doesn’t meet your needs, consider doing an evidence summary instead.  

Team Members (at minimum...)

  • Content expert
  • 2 reviewers
  • 1 tie breaker
  • 1 statistician (meta-analysis)
  • *1 information professional (librarian trained in systematic reviews)


“Expert searchers are an important part of the systematic review team, crucial throughout the review process-from the development of the proposal and research question to publication.” (McGowan & Sampson, 2005)

*Be sure to ask your information professional (librarian) to write a methods section regarding the search methods and to give them co-authorship. You may also want to consider providing a copy of one of the search strategies used in an appendix.


Before your librarian creates a search strategy and starts searching in earnest you should write a detailed PICOTT question, determine the inclusion and exclusion criteria for your study, run a preliminary search, and have 2-4 articles that already fit the criteria for your review.

What is searched depends on the topic of the review but should include...

  • At least 3 standard medical databases like PubMed/Medline, CINAHL, possibly Scopus, etc..
  • At least 3 grey literature resources like, SIGLE, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses, etc...


Citation Management Software - You will need a citation management system like EndNote to handle the large number of citations that you will need to deal with. At this time, I can only recommend EndNote. Other systems like RefWorks and free ones like Zotero and EndNote Web, at this time, cannot handle the tasks or amounts of citation data typical for systematic reviews. 

$$ EndNote: University of Missouri faculty have access to Endnote for $30. There is no cost to students.

Statistics - The University of Missouri has the SAS, SPSS, and STATA available through Software Anywhere. The following statistics software is also available for purchase:

  • SAS - Available for $65 per license    
  • SPSS - Available for $65 per license

Writing - RevMan allows you to prepare the text, build the tables showing the characteristics of studies and the comparisons in the review, and add study data. It can perform meta-analyses and present the results graphically.


Your librarian is not the appropriate person to obtain the physical articles. It is a fairly easy, though time consuming, task that we are happy to show you or someone on your team how to do.

$$ It is doubtful that we own every article you will need to look at so be sure to plan for the expense of inter-library loan (ILL). Inter-library loan is a service provided to you by MU Libraries that will obtain articles we don't own on your behalf. 

Anticipate your costs appropriately for a systematic review by adding a budget for the expense of collecting articles.

Staying Organized

Plan Ahead

Decide as a team what tools to use to stay organized. If your team includes people you do not have physical access to, consider using tools in the cloud that will offer the opportunity to easily collaborate on single documents as opposed to emailing back and forth and thus having to track several revised versions of the same document.


The goal is to keep records in the most systematic way possible so that all of your work can be reproduced. That means you should keep detailed records of the exact search you used for each database and that all your searches should have an end date so that the results can be reproduced exactly every time.


  •  detailed records of each search in addition to saving searches in your personal accounts (like your My NCBI account in PubMed)

  •  all your citations in a citation management program (like EndNote) so you can easily and quickly manipulate them

  •  a spreadsheet organized by article and sub-organized by preliminary inclusion and exclusion criteria to track why you included and excluded articles for more in-depth review

  •  detailed notes of in-depth reviews for each article organized by specific criteria



Rebecca Graves's picture
Rebecca Graves
(573) 882-0469