Skip to Main Content

KNES611: Research Methods in Kinesiology - Fall 2023

Overview of Systematic Reviews

Systematic Review Definition

This methodology prescribes explicit, reproducible, and transparent processes for collating the best available evidence in answer to specific questions.  In particular, it requires the use of robust techniques for:

  • searching for and identifying primary studies,
  • selecting the studies to be included in the review,
  • extracting the data from the studies, and
  • appraising the quality of these studies,
  • synthesizing the findings narratively and/or through pooling suitable quantitative data in meta-analysis


Dixon-Woods, M., & Sutton, A. (2004). Systematic Review. In Michael S. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & Tim Futing Liao (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods. (pp. 1111-1112). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Systematic Reviews vs Traditional Reviews

Feature Systematic Review Narrative / Traditional Review
Question Often focused (clinical) question. Sometimes broad in scope
Sources & Search

Explicit search strategy of multiple databases.

Comprehensive sources.

Not usually specified
Selection Criterion-based selection; uniformly applied Not usually specified
Appraisal Rigorous critical appraisal Variable
Synthesis Quantitative summary. Also qualitative/narrative Often qualitative summary
Inferences Based on all available evidence Based on a sample of the evidence
Grading All evidence is graded (quality assessment)

May or may not be graded    

Adapted from: Cook, D., Mulrow, C. & Haydens, R. (1997)  Systematic reviews: Synthesis of best evidence for clinical decisions.  Annals of Internal Medicine,  126(5):376-380.

Eligibility Criteria

Study selection criteria determines which studies will be included in the systematic review.

Also called:

  • inclusion / exclusion criteria -- essentially the intellectual checklist of whether or not the study is relevant to your review and review question
Study eligibility criteria:
  • Clearly defines which subjects or studies will be included in the review
  • Essential for determining relevant and irrelevant studies
  • Determined by the research question
  • MUST be defined before data collection (i.e. conducting the search)

Documenting Your Systematic Review

PRISMA - Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

A systematic review requires transparency and rigourness with the methodology.  It is therefore essential to document  the process from the beginning of the project.  PRISMA is one way of doing this.

  • It is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
  • The aim of the PRISMA Statement is to help authors improve the reporting of systematic reviews.
  • The PRISMA Statement consists of a 27-item checklist and a four-phase flow diagram.
    • Use the PRISMA flow diagram to document your systematic review process
    • Use the 27-item checklist as a guide throughout the systematic review process

Cochrane Handbook - Documenting and Reporting the Search Process
(go to section 6.6.1)

"The search process needs to be documented in enough detail throughout the process to ensure that it can be reported correctly in the review, to the extent that ll the searches of all the databases are reproducible" (Cochrane Handbook, 2008, p. 144)