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How Do I Do a Systematic Review?

Identify the Question

  • Confirm the need for a new review
  • Develop an analytic framework that clearly lays out the chain of logic that links the health intervention to the outcomes of interest and defines the key clinical questions to be addressed by the systematic review
  • Use a standard format to articulate each clinical question of interest
  • State the rationale for each clinical question
  • Refine each question based on user and stakeholder input

Eden, J., Levit, L., Berg, A., & Morton, S. (Eds.). (2011). Finding what works in health care: standards for systematic reviews. National Academies Press.


Searching for studies: Prior to starting a systematic review it's helpful to find out if a systematic review has been done or is under way. Published reviews also provide a starting point for identifying studies in your area of research.

Preliminary searching short video from Yale Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medial Library

Components of a  well-built clinical Question from the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine

Assemble a Team

Establish a team with appropriate expertise and experience to conduct the systematic review. The team must have at least three members to avoid bias, appropriate expertise. Consider the following; Content expert, 2 reviewers, 1 tie breaker, 1 statistician (meta-analysis),project design,*1 information professional (librarian trained in systematic reviews)

Penn State University has biostatisticians, epidemiologists, and methodologists with a diverse set of expertise located within several departments and centers at the Hershey and University Park (UP) campuses.  The CTSI Biostatistics/Epidemiology/Research Design Core pools Penn State resources at UP and at the College of Medicine to offer training in biostatistical and epidemiological methodologies and assistance to investigators in study design, data management and analysis. See the online request form for biostatistical help from the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State Hershey.

Establish Protocol

Describe the study screening and selection criteria (inclusion/exclusion criteria)

  • a good systematic review can start with a protocol - it can serve as a road map for your review
  • a protocol specifies the objectives, methods, and outcomes of primary interest of the systematic review
  • a protocol promotes transparency of methods
  • allows your peers to review how you will extract information to summarize your outcome data

Librarians can provide resources on developing  protocols and assist in developing the literature search section of the protocol.

Investigators should consider registering their protocols.

  • Campbell Collaboration - produces systematic reviews of the effects of social interventions
  • Cochrane Collaboration - international organization, produces and disseminates systematic reviews of health care interventions
  • PROSPERO -international prospective register of systematic reviews