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Systematic Methods for Literature Reviews: SRM - General steps

General considerations

  • Know your "end product". What is at least one thing you know that are you going to produce ? Literature reviews can introduce (or be sections of) larger projects. Literature reviews can also be stand-alone end products. Find an example of the kind of document that you will end up with. 
  • A central feature from the beginning of the process is the documentation of all steps used or choices (and the associated reasoning and/or observations for each of those). Also, adjustments to your goals or planned steps might be required as you proceed; document these. Tools and recommendations for documentation are found under the Manage tab of this guide.
  • Also, for large projects much of the SR literature explains the value of having two investigators involved, and so that can be considered. Inter-rater reliability can be assessed regarding the selection of items, 'extraction of information', etc.
  • Another significant consideration can be the creation of an a priori protocol that stipulates goals and actions to be taken for every step in the process; a protocol supports transparency, helps to guard against bias and process subjectivity, and it is expected for those submitting SR to the organizations such as the Campbell or Cochrane Collaboration. For protocol examples and steps, see the manuals under the tab for Manuals; also see the protocols at this site. There is debate in the literature about protocols, and, in fact, most/all guidance does note that some iterative processes are/can be needed.

General "systematic review" steps

As noted recently, "systematic reviews are a form of research; they are a way of bringing together what is known from the research literature using explicit and accountable methods." (Gough, 2012).  

The following is a generic set of stages that "draws on" manuals and published guidelines that discuss the sequence of activities used to complete what have come to be known as "systematic reviews".  Organizations are listed below that have manuals which provide details for stages and steps within those stages.  

1. Begin to (or actually) formulate and state a focused research topic or question.

2. Initial “scoping” activity.  What and where are the possible information sources ? Clarify topic.  Clarify criteria to use to select sources and information to use (inclusion/exclusion criteria - IE).

3. Design a comprehensive or targeted search.  Attempts at comprehensive searching has been widely viewed as supporting goals to reduce bias. Basic guidance for searching is discussed here. Also consult the Manuals of SR organizations; see Manual tab above.  Consider possibly apriori documentation of the steps that "will be used" in the review. This has been called a protocol, and it has been viewed as a means of guarding against subjectivity, reducing bias, and supporting transparency. 

4. Do searches.   Screen and choose possible information sources. 

5. Second screening.  Use your IE criteria with resources that pass initial screening; decide which items to keep. These have the information you will "synthesize" etc. in your review.

6. Identify and “extract” useful information from resources selected. This is the "actual information" you will use in your "synthesis", etc.

7. Actually construct the arguments, picture, integration, or “answer”, etc. that seems to grow out of the information that you have chosen.  

8. Create a document that can be shared that contains the “results” of steps 1-7.  Present this report in a manner that allows others to clearly ‘see’ and ‘reproduce’ steps 1-7.  


Systematic Review Organizations

You can connect to organizations that specialize in systematic reviews.  Access to published guidelines for doing reviews is available for each of these.  Access to reviews themselves varies.