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Public Health: Systematic Reviews

What are Systematic Reviews?

Systematic Reviews are, at their simplest level, comprehensive evidence reviews on a specific topic (e.g., programs, interventions, research questions). Exhaustive literature searches are completed and located evidence (i.e., journal articles) is analysed, synthesized, compared, assessed for quality, and summarized. Systematic reviews began in the clinical sciences and typically use randomized controlled trials (RCT) as the 'gold standard' in terms of evidence.

Since the use of RCTs can often be unethical in population or public health studies, systematic reviews are less common in the population or public health literature. However, in recent years more studies that use qualitative methodology have begun to be included in systematic reviews. An important background article on systematic reviews is:

Mullen PD, Ramirez G. The promise and pitfalls of systematic reviews. Annual Review of Public Health. 27:81-102, 2006. [PubMed]

The systematic review "movement" that has transformed medical journal reports of clinical trials and reviews of clinical trials has taken hold in public health, with the most recent milestone, the publication of the first edition of The Guide to Community Health Services in 2005. In this paper we define and distinguish current terms, point out important resources for systematic reviews, describe the impact of systematic review on the quality of primary studies and summaries of the evidence, and provide perspectives on the promise of systematic reviews for shaping the agenda for public health research. Several pitfalls are discussed, including a false sense of rigor implied by the terms "systematic review" and "meta-analysis" and substantial variation in the validity of claims that a particular intervention is "evidence based," and the difficulty of translating conclusions from systematic reviews into public health advocacy and practice. 

Interested in doing a synthesis review?

Are you thinking of conducting a synthesis review (systematic review, scoping review, realist review, etc.)?

Consult this Synthesis Review Toolkit which was developed to guide individuals from various academic backgrounds through their journey of conducting a synthesis review.

Support for Synthesis Reviews

Synthesis Review Support

The University Library offers researchers support to facilitate synthesis literature reviews. This document outlines the three types of support offered and who is eligible.

These supports are intended for researchers conducting comprehensive synthesis reviews. This may include (but is not limited to): systematic reviews; scoping reviews; realist reviews; rapid reviews, and/or meta-analyses.  Please consult Grant & Booth’s 2009 article or Sutton et al, 2019 article for more information concerning synthesis review types and methodologies.

Types of Support & Eligibility

We offer three types of support for comprehensive synthesis reviews. Please note that support for graduate theses, course work, and student/medical resident projects is offered through the Training and Consultation only.  Review teams can receive up to 10 hours of support through a combination of Training and/or Consultation.

a) Training

Research assistants, students, post-doctoral fellows, medical residents, and faculty can request individual or group training sessions on advanced literature searching for synthesis reviews. Training sessions would not typically address a specific research project but would provide instruction on the knowledge and skills required for synthesis review literature searching, on topics such as effective use of common biomedical databases, use of Library-supported reference management software, and proper documentation of search results and strategies.

b) Consultation

Research assistants, students, post-doctoral fellows, medical residents, and faculty can request consultation services to assist them with literature searching for a synthesis review. This option works best when the student or faculty member(s) has already done some work and would like assistance with specific questions related to their synthesis review.

c) Collaboration

With collaboration, a USask faculty member partners with a liaison librarian to produce a jointly authored systematic review intended for publication. The liaison librarian, as a member of the research team, is responsible for conducting the literature search for the review and drafting the literature search methodology section of the synthesis review. Liaison librarian collaboration is available for reviews only when the USask faculty is the Principal Investigator and primary contact. This type of service is dependent on librarian availability and capacity. 

Read up on it!

Systematic Review Intro video

The following is the 1st in a series of videos from Yale on Systematic Reviews. You can view the rest of the videos here:

Systematic Review Resources

Resources for Systematic Reviews & Evidence-based Public Health Practice - From the University of Texas School of Public Health Library, this site contains a wealth of information on developing systematic reviews in public health.