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Workshop: Systematic Reviews: Path to Publishing

writing guide for systematic reviews workshop group

Systematic Reviews: The Steps

The steps in a systematic review

  • Step 1: Framing questions for a review

    The problems to be addressed by the review should be specified in the form of clear, unambiguous and structured questions before beginning the review work. Once the review questions have been set, modifications to the protocol should be allowed only if alternative ways of defining the populations, interventions, outcomes or study designs become apparent

  • Step 2: Identifying relevant work

    The search for studies should be extensive. Multiple resources (both computerized and printed) should be searched without language restrictions. The study selection criteria should flow directly from the review questions and be specified a priori. Reasons for inclusion and exclusion should be recorded

  • Step 3: Assessing the quality of studies

    Study quality assessment is relevant to every step of a review. Question formulation (Step 1) and study selection criteria (Step 2) should describe the minimum acceptable level of design. Selected studies should be subjected to a more refined quality assessment by use of general critical appraisal guides and design-based quality checklists (Step 3). These detailed quality assessments will be used for exploring heterogeneity and informing decisions regarding suitability of meta-analysis (Step 4). In addition they help in assessing the strength of inferences and making recommendations for future research (Step 5)

  • Step 4: Summarizing the evidence

    Data synthesis consists of tabulation of study characteristics, quality and effects as well as use of statistical methods for exploring differences between studies and combining their effects (meta-analysis). Exploration of heterogeneity and its sources should be planned in advance (Step 3). If an overall meta-analysis cannot be done, subgroup meta-analysis may be feasible

  • Step 5: Interpreting the findings

    The issues highlighted in each of the four steps above should be met. The risk of publication bias and related biases should be explored. Exploration for heterogeneity should help determine whether the overall summary can be trusted, and, if not, the effects observed in high-quality studies should be used for generating inferences. Any recommendations should be graded by reference to the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence

From: Khan, K. S., Kunz, R., Kleijnen, J., & Antes, G. (2003). Five steps to conducting a systematic review. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 96(3), 118–121.

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