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Welcome and attribution

This guide is intended for students and researchers at the University of Groningen seeking up to date information on how to carry out systematic reviews.

For systematic reviews in the field of Medical Sciences please use this guide.

This guide is based on a Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam publication on

What is a systematic review?

Systematic reviews seek to collate evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. They aim to minimize bias by using explicit, systematic methods documented in advance with a protocol.

Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.3 (updated February 2022). Cochrane, 2022. Available from 

Tip: watch the video 'What are systematic reviews?'

Types of Reviews

Systematic reviews: Comprehensive with minimized bias, based on specific question and criteria with a pre-planned protocol, evaluates quality of evidence. Example

  • Based on randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) – Best evidence
  • Based on other types of clinical studies or literature – Best available evidence
  • Meta-analysis – A quantitative systematic review that applies statistical analysis. Example

A systematic review can be either quantitative or qualitative.

A quantitative systematic review will include studies that have numerical data.
A qualitative systematic review derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants. It will include focus groups, interviews, observations and diaries.

Narrative reviews: Broad perspective on topic (like a textbook chapter), no specified search strategy, significant bias issues, may not evaluate quality of evidence. Example

Scoping Reviews: An overview of the literature on a broader topic; often done to identify whether a systematic review is feasible.

Rapid reviews: Assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, by using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research. Completeness of searching determined by time constraints.


Reading tip:
The article below describes different types of literature reviews and methods of synthesizing scientific literature. It can be very helpful when you are trying to decide what kind of review best suits your goals.

Sutton, A., Clowes, M., Preston, L., & Booth, A. (2019). Meeting the review family: exploring review types and associated information retrieval requirements. Health Information & Libraries Journal36(3), 202–222.

Systematic review or a literature review?

It’s common to confuse systematic and literature reviews because both are used to provide a summary of the existing literature or research on a specific topic. This table provides a detailed explanation as well as the differences between systematic and narrative literature reviews.

Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. Available at:

Steps 'What authors do' working on a systematic review

The infographic: steps 'What authors do' working on a systematic review


Designed by Jessica Kaufman, Cochrane Consumers & Communication Review Group, Centre for Health Communication & Participation, La Trobe University, 2011. CC-BY-SA License. Source




Questions? Ask the experts:

Subjects: Information Literacy, SmartCat, Systematic Review, OER