Writing your Systematic Review

Image promoting how to write a systematic review. Image depicts a researcher sitting at a desk, reviewing a research paper.


The Structure of the Systematic Review

The structure of your Systematic Review and its composition are largely like that of any other type of review.

As previously explained, one of the key purposes of the systematic review is to provide an answer to the research question (Protocol) being asked in your study.

- Ideally your review should not consist of just a broad overview of current research trends on the topic. Your review should explain how results were achieved and a conclusion realised.

- A detailed and structured methodology is a fundamental part of any systematic review. This should outline in detail the search process and the selection process used throughout your review.

- This is one of the key reasons why careful documentation of your search methodology is so important throughout the review process.

- Those who read your review should be able to critically interpret the findings and understand why sources were chosen, how they were assessed, and how conclusions were reached. They should also be able to reproduce any literature searches that were carried out during your review.

- Your systematic review should reflect upon the various stages outlined in your initial protocol.

- With a systematic review, reporting guidelines should be followed that help you identify what should be included in each section of the review. This is why the PRISMA checklist is so useful and will play an important role in helping you to successfully structure your report.

- Your review should also include a critical evaluation and interpretation of the findings. The findings of your review should be analysed and not simply summarised.

- Your review should also explain how your research will have a meaningful impact on a particular field of study.


Online Tools that may be of assistance when composing your Systematic Review

- An online tool such as Covidence can help you to review and analyse your results.

- Rayyan is an alternative review manager, which is particularly helpful during the screening and selection process. Rayyan offers free access for early career researchers.



Your Systematic Review should include the following sections:



 - Introduction / Background to the topic.

- Hypothesis being proposed.

- Summary of methods employed i.e. PICO, inclusion & exclusion criteria, search strategy, selection & data extraction, study of data quality.

- Summary of results

- Summary of conclusion (and sometimes recommendations).



Your introduction should provide an overview of the systematic review and enough contextual information for the reader to make sense of the remainder of the report. It usually covers the following:

- Background information to contextualise the review (what we already know about this area)

- Definitions of key terms and concepts if needed

- The rationale for the study

- The aims and objectives of the review.

- The question or protocol that needs to be answered.

Note: The points above do not necessarily have to be in this specific order. Some researchers may prefer to begin with the research questions, followed by the context, building to the rationale.


Methods used

The methods section can be divided up into two main sections.

- The first section describes how the literature search was conducted. This section may contain any of the following information: 

- The databases searched and whether any manual searches were completed 

- How search terms were identified 

- What terms were employed in the key word searches 

- If particular sections of articles were looked at during the search and collection stage i.e. titles, abstracts, table of contents (note: the information in these sections may have informed the selection process) 


Selection Criteria

The second section discusses the criteria used for including or excluding studies. This section may include any of the following information:

- Your selection criteria

- How you identified relevant studies for further analysis 

- What articles you reviewed 

- What particular topics were chosen when selecting articles




In the results section, everything you have done throughout the different stages of your review should be presented.  

This can include any of the following: ​

- Number of studies screened, assessed for eligibility, and included in the review, with reasons for exclusion at each stage.

- Specify the library databases that were searched.

- Include the number of results found.

- Explain how the articles were selected by title, abstract, table of contents or other procedures etc.

- Provide an overview of the types of studies that were selected for the review and provide reasons for their inclusion.



Results of individual studies.

- The review team may find it helpful to refer to the results of specific studies that were selected.

- For example - The inclusion of particular studies that found a positive correlation between two phenomena or found a causal relationship between two variables.

- Your team may like to include tables in the Results section or Appendix which provide an overview of data found in the studies. Tables in the Results section will also have to be explained fully.




- Summary of main findings

- Interpretation of main findings as opposed to simply repeating results.

- Identify strengths and weaknesses of findings.

- Comparison with previous review findings or general literature

- The degree to which the review answers the research question

- Limitations (e.g. biases, lack of methodological rigour or weak evidence in the articles)




- Summary of how the review answers the research question / Protocol

- Significance of the findings

- Reminder of the limitations

- Implications and recommendations for further research.

- Separate or combined?

- A key difference between a discussion and a conclusion relates to how specific or general the observations are. A discussion closely interprets results in the context of the review. A conclusion identifies the significance and the implications beyond the review. Some reviews present these as separately headed sections. Many reviews, however, present only one section using a combination of elements. This section may be headed either Discussion or Conclusion.



View the following publication to see annotated examples of the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion in a completed Systematic Review.

What facilitates “patient empowerment” in cancer patients during follow-up: A qualitative systematic review of the literature by Jørgensen, C. R., Thomsen, T. G., Ross, L., Dietz, S. M., Therkildsen, S., Groenvold, M., Rasmussen, C. L., & Johnsen, A. T. (2018).Qualitative Health Research, 28(2), 292-304. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317721477



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