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Systematic reviews: Types of literature review & methods

By Paul Levett

Analytical reviews


When comparing therapies:

PRISMA (Guideline on how to perform and write-up a systematic review and/or meta-analysis of the outcomes reported in multiple clinical trials of therapeutic interventions. PRISMA replaces the previous QUORUM statement guidelines): 
Liberati  et al. (2009). The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate healthcare interventions: explanation and elaboration. BMJ, 339: b2700. Doi: 10.1136/bmj.b2700

When comparing diagnostic methods:

STAndards for the Reporting of Diagnostic accuracy studies (STARD) Statement. (Reporting guidelines for writing up a study comparing the accuracy of competing diagnostic methods)

When comparing clinical practice guidelines:

AGREE Research Trust (ART) (2013). Appraisal of Guidelines for Research & Evaluation (AGREE-II). (A 23-item instrument for assessing the quality of Clinical Practice Guidelines. Used internationally for evaluating or deciding which guidelines could be recommended for use in practice or to inform health policy decisions.)

When reviewing genetics studies

Human genetics review reporting guidelines. Little J, Higgins JPT (eds.). The HuGENet™ HuGE Review Handbook, version 1.0

When you need to re-analyze individual participant data

If you wish to collect, check, and re-analyze individual participant data (IPD) from clinical trials addressing a particular research question, you should follow the PRISMA-IPD guidelines as reported in Stewart, L.A., Clarke, M., Rovers, M., et al. (2015). Preferred Reporting Items for a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Individual Participant Data: The PRISMA-IPD Statement. JAMA, 313(16):1657-1665. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.3656.


When reporting the results of a Randomized Controlled Trial:

Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) Statement. (Reporting guidelines for writing up a Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial).

Narrative reviews


When reviewing observational studies/qualitative research:

STrengthening the Reporting of OBservational studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) statement. (Reporting guidelines for various types of health sciences observational studies). 

Meta-analysis of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (MOOSE)

RATS Qualitative research systematic review guidelines.

The Guide to Community Preventive Services. Systematic Review Methods. (Public Health Prevention systematic review guidelines)

Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency Of health Research (EQUATOR) network. (Reporting guidelines for various types of health research studies).

Green, B. N., Johnson, C. D., & Adams, A. (2006). Writing narrative literature reviews for peer-reviewed journals: secrets of the trade. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, 5(3): 101-117. DOI: 10.1016/S0899-3467(07)60142-6.  This is a very good article about what to take into consideration when writing any type of narrative review.


Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91-108. doi:10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x. (Describes 14 different types of literature and systematic review, useful for thinking at the outset about what sort of literature review you want to do.)

Institute of Medicine. (2011). Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews. Washington, DC: National Academies (U.S. Institute of Medicine systematic review guidelines).

Cochrane Handbook of Systematic Reviews of Interventions 5.1.0 (March 2011) (International Cochrane Collaboration systematic review guidelines).

Center for Reviews and Dissemination (University of York, England) (2009). Systematic Reviews: CRD's guidance for undertaking systematic reviews in health care. (British systematic review guidelines). 

Agency for Health Research & Quality (AHRQ) (2013). Methods guide for effectiveness and comparative effectiveness reviews. (U.S. comparative effectiveness review guidelines)

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) (2013). The PCORI Methodology Report. (A 47-item methodology checklist for U.S. patient-centered outcomes research. Established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PCORI funds the development of guidance on the comparative effectivess of clinical healthcare, similar to the UK National Institute for Clinical Evidence but without reporting cost-effectiveness QALY metrics). 

World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Systematic Literature Review Manual.

Hempel, S., Xenakis, L., & Danz, M. (2016). Systematic Reviews for Occupational Safety and Health Questions: Resources for Evidence Synthesis. Retrieved 8/15/16 from NIOSH guidelines for how to carry out a systematic review in the occupational safety and health domain.

A good source for reporting guidelines is the NLM's Research Reporting Guidelines and Initiatives.

Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE). (An international group of acadmics/clinicians working to promote a common approach to grading the quality of evidence and strength of recommendations.) 

Phillips, B., Ball, C., Sackett, D., et al. (2009). Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine: Levels of Evidence. Retrieved 3/20/17 from (Another commonly used criteria for grading the quality of evidence and strength of recommendations, developed in part by EBM guru David Sackett.) 

Garrard, J. (2007). Health Sciences Literature Review Made Easy: The Matrix Method (2nd Ed.).  Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers. (Textbook of health sciences literature search methods).

Zilberberg, M. (2012). Between the lines: Finding the truth in medical literature. Goshen, MA: Evimed Research Press. (Concise book on foundational concepts of evidence-based medicine).

Lang, T. (2009). The Value of Systematic Reviews as Research Activities in Medical Education. In: Lang, T. How to write, publish, & present in the health sciences : a guide for clinicians & laboratory researchers. Philadelphia : American College of Physicians.  (This book chapter has a helpful bibliography on systematic review and meta-analysis methods)

Brown, S., Martin, E., Garcia, T., Winter, M., García, A., Brown, A., Cuevas H., & Sumlin, L. (2013). Managing complex research datasets using electronic tools: a meta-analysis exemplar. Computers, Informatics, Nursing: CIN, 31(6), 257-265. doi:10.1097/NXN.0b013e318295e69c. (This article advocates for the programming of electronic fillable forms in Adobe Acrobat Pro to feed data into Excel or SPSS for analysis, and to use cloud based file sharing systems such as Blackboard, RefWorks, or EverNote to facilitate sharing knowledge about the decision-making process and keep data secure. Of particular note are the flowchart describing this process, and their example screening form used for the initial screening of abstracts).

Brown, S., Upchurch, S., & Acton, G. (2003). A framework for developing a coding scheme for meta-analysis. Western Journal Of Nursing Research, 25(2), 205-222. (This article describes the process of how to design a coded data extraction form and codebook, Table 1 is an example of a coded data extraction form that can then be used to program a fillable form in Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Access).

Elamin, M. B., Flynn, D. N., Bassler, D., Briel, M., Alonso-Coello, P., Karanicolas, P., & ... Montori, V. M. (2009). Choice of data extraction tools for systematic reviews depends on resources and review complexityJournal Of Clinical Epidemiology62(5), 506-510. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2008.10.016  (This article offers advice on how to decide what tools to use to extract data for analytical systematic reviews).

Riegelman R.  Studying a Study and Testing a Test: Reading Evidence-based Health Research, 6th Edition.  Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012. (Textbook of quantitative statistical methods used in health sciences research).

Rathbone, J., Hoffmann, T., & Glasziou, P. (2015). Faster title and abstract screening? Evaluating Abstrackr, a semi-automated online screening program for systematic reviewers. Systematic Reviews, 480. doi:10.1186/s13643-015-0067-6

Guyatt, G., Rennie, D., Meade, M., & Cook, D. (2015). Users' guides to the medical literature (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education Medical.  (This is a foundational textbook on evidence-based medicine and of particular use to the reviewer who wants to learn about the different types of published research article e.g. "what is a case report?" and to understand what types of study design best answer what types of clinical question).

Journal articles describing systematic review methods can be searched for in PubMed using this search string in the PubMed search box: sysrev_methods [sb]. A list of systematic review methods is on the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Health website.

Software for meta-analysis or analysis

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