Conducting a Systematic Review: A Practical Guide

  • Freya MacMillanEmail author
  • Kate A. McBride
  • Emma S. George
  • Genevieve Z. Steiner
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history



It can be challenging to conduct a systematic review with limited experience and skills in undertaking such a task. This chapter provides a practical guide to undertaking a systematic review, providing step-by-step instructions to guide the individual through the process from start to finish. The chapter begins with defining what a systematic review is, reviewing its various components, turning a research question into a search strategy, developing a systematic review protocol, followed by searching for relevant literature and managing citations. Next, the chapter focuses on documenting the characteristics of included studies and summarizing findings, extracting data, methods for assessing risk of bias and considering heterogeneity, and undertaking meta-analyses. Last, the chapter explores creating a narrative and interpreting findings. Practical tips and examples from existing literature are utilized throughout the chapter to assist readers in their learning. By the end of this chapter, the reader will have the knowledge to conduct their own systematic review.


Systematic review Search strategy Risk of bias Heterogeneity Meta-analysis Forest plot Funnel plot Meta-synthesis 


  1. Barbour RS. Checklists for improving rigour in qualitative research: a case of the tail wagging the dog? BMJ. 2001;322(7294):1115–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Butler A, Hall H, Copnell B. A guide to writing a qualitative systematic review protocol to enhance evidence-based practice in nursing and health care. Worldviews Evid-Based Nurs. 2016;13(3):241–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cook DJ, Mulrow CD, Haynes RB. Systematic reviews: synthesis of best evidence for clinical decisions. Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(5):376–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dixon-Woods M, Bonas S, Booth A, Jones DR, Miller T, Sutton AJ, … Young B. How can systematic reviews incorporate qualitative research? A critical perspective. Qual Res. 2006;6(1):27–44.
  5. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper: the basics of evidence-based medicine. 4th ed. Chichester/Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.Google Scholar
  6. Hannes K, Lockwood C, Pearson A. A comparative analysis of three online appraisal instruments’ ability to assess validity in qualitative research. Qual Health Res. 2010;20(12):1736–43. Scholar
  7. Higgins JPT, Green S. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions (Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]). The Cochrane Collaboration; 2011.
  8. Higgins JPT, Altman DG, Gøtzsche PC, Jüni P, Moher D, Oxman AD, … Sterne JAC. The Cochrane Collaboration’s tool for assessing risk of bias in randomised trials. BMJ. 2011;343.
  9. Hillier S, Grimmer-Somers K, Merlin T, Middleton P, Salisbury J, Tooher R, Weston A. FORM: an Australian method for formulating and grading recommendations in evidence-based clinical guidelines. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2011;11:23. Scholar
  10. Humphreys DK, Panter J, Ogilvie D. Questioning the application of risk of bias tools in appraising evidence from natural experimental studies: critical reflections on Benton et al., IJBNPA 2016. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017;14(1):49. Scholar
  11. King R, Hooper B, Wood W. Using bibliographic software to appraise and code data in educational systematic review research. Med Teach. 2011;33(9):719–23. Scholar
  12. Koelemay MJ, Vermeulen H. Quick guide to systematic reviews and meta-analysis. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2016;51(2):309. Scholar
  13. Lucas PJ, Baird J, Arai L, Law C, Roberts HM. Worked examples of alternative methods for the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative research in systematic reviews. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2007;7:4–4. Scholar
  14. MacMillan F, Kirk A, Mutrie N, Matthews L, Robertson K, Saunders DH. A systematic review of physical activity and sedentary behavior intervention studies in youth with type 1 diabetes: study characteristics, intervention design, and efficacy. Pediatr Diabetes. 2014;15(3):175–89. Scholar
  15. MacMillan F, Karamacoska D, El Masri A, McBride KA, Steiner GZ, Cook A, … George ES. A systematic review of health promotion intervention studies in the police force: study characteristics, intervention design and impacts on health. Occup Environ Med. 2017.
  16. Matthews L, Kirk A, MacMillan F, Mutrie N. Can physical activity interventions for adults with type 2 diabetes be translated into practice settings? A systematic review using the RE-AIM framework. Transl Behav Med. 2014;4(1):60–78. Scholar
  17. Moher D, Schulz KF, Altman DG. The CONSORT statement: revised recommendations for improving the quality of reports of parallel group randomized trials. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2001;1:2. Scholar
  18. Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. PLoS Med. 2009;6(7):e1000097. Scholar
  19. Moher D, Shamseer L, Clarke M, Ghersi D, Liberati A, Petticrew M, et al. Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols (PRISMA-P) 2015 statement. Syst Rev. 2015;4:1. Scholar
  20. Mulrow CD, Cook DJ, Davidoff F. Systematic reviews: critical links in the great chain of evidence. Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(5):389–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Peters MDJ. Managing and coding references for systematic reviews and scoping reviews in EndNote. Med Ref Serv Q. 2017;36(1):19–31. Scholar
  22. Steiner GZ, Mathersul DC, MacMillan F, Camfield DA, Klupp NL, Seto SW, … Chang DH. A systematic review of intervention studies examining nutritional and herbal therapies for mild cognitive impairment and dementia using neuroimaging methods: study characteristics and intervention efficacy. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:21.
  23. Sterne JA, Hernán MA, Reeves BC, Savović J, Berkman ND, Viswanathan M, … Higgins JP. ROBINS-I: a tool for assessing risk of bias in non-randomised studies of interventions. BMJ. 2016;355.
  24. Tong A, Sainsbury P, Craig J. Consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ): a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups. Int J Qual Health Care. 2007;19(6):349–57. Scholar
  25. Tong A, Palmer S, Craig JC, Strippoli GFM. A guide to reading and using systematic reviews of qualitative research. Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2016;31(6):897–903. Scholar
  26. Uman LS. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011;20(1):57–9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Freya MacMillan
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kate A. McBride
    • 2
  • Emma S. George
    • 3
  • Genevieve Z. Steiner
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Science and Health and Translational Health Research InstituteSydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Translational Health Research InstituteWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.School of Science and HealthWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia
  4. 4.NICM, Western Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations