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How to Find and Conduct Systematic Reviews

Step-by-step instructions on how to find and conduct systematic reviews, intended for students in the health sciences.


Want a preview of the process? Finished reading the steps and need a refresher? Use this outline as a (p)review, but make sure to see the full guide for details on how to complete each step. (Click on a step name to see the To Do List associated with that step in the full guide.)

Before You Begin

Make sure:

Step 1: Choose Your Topic

  • Choose a topic.
  • Phrase your topic as an answerable question.
  • Review the existing literature on the topic.
  • Decide which types of documents you will and will not include in your systematic review (create inclusion and exclusion criteria).

Step 2: Identify Your Keywords

  • Clearly state the research topic in as much detail as possible.
  • Identify the main and unique keywords in your research topic.
  • Apply quotation marks and asterisks to your search.
  • Identify any synonyms or related terms.

Step 3: Connect Your Keywords

  • Use AND to connect independent keywords.
  • Use OR to connect related keywords.
  • Use NOT to eliminate irrelevant words.
  • Write out all your keywords with the connectors.
  • Wrap parentheses around related terms.
  • Examine your search phrase for redundancies.
  • Write your full search phrase.

Step 4: Choose Your Databases

  • Make a list of all the subjects, fields, and disciplines that may contribute information about your topic.
  • Identify the databases associated with the subjects, fields, and disciplines on your list.

Step 5: Find Your Subjects

  • Translate your keywords into subjects
  • Add the subjects you found to your search phrases (one search phrase per database).
  • Double check your (semi)final search phrases.

Step 6: Run Your Search

  • Place each search phrase in the corresponding database's "Advanced Search."
  • Make sure your search phrases are turning up results that are relevant to you. If not, revise them.
  • "Steal" all the keywords and subjects from the results that are relevant and add them to your own search phrases.
  • Rerun searches in the databases for as long as you keep modifying your search phrases.

Step 7: Apply Your Criteria

  • Write down the number of results you retrieved in each database.
  • Apply your inclusion and exclusion criteria to your results using the databases' filters and limits.
  • Write down the number of results you obtain in each database after you apply the filters and limits.

Step 8: Manage Your Citations

  • Consider a citation manager such as RefWorks.
  • Transfer the citation information from the databases to the citation manager you select.

Step 9+: What Happens Next?

  • Find any other types of sources you are interested in that may not have been included in the databases.
  • Make sure you have documented every step of your search process.
  • Read and evaluate the sources you found.
  • Contact your professor or advisor for more information on what you should do next.