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Systematic Literature Reviews: An Explanation

  •  Jan 2019

  •  10-minute read

  •  Research Methods

This post defines what we mean by a systematic literature review, discusses their main characteristics, and explores their strengths and weaknesses.

Many master’s and PhD students will find that to pass their courses, they need to write a literature review. In certain cases, these literature reviews need to be standalone documents, and in other cases, the literature review is simply used as a way to contextualise a primary research project.

If you’re interested in finding examples of each one, first take a look at Mishra and Nair (2015). This is a clear case of a standalone literature review, and it’s a great example of what scholars call a systematic literature review (or SLR). Contrastingly, Carnwell and Daly’s (2003) qualitative exploratory study, before presenting its own primary research findings, briefly summarises and critiques other findings in the form of a critical literature review (or CLR).

Clearly, then, there are different types of literature review.

However, a less obvious – yet equally important point – is that each type of literature review comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, purposes, and degrees of suitability to your own situation as a student or academic.

With this in mind, this document explains the core features of one of the most common – and most powerful – types of literature review: the systematic literature review (SLR).

Specifically, this document does the following things:

  1. Outlines the main characteristics of SLRs
  2. Explains what the SLRs strengths and weaknesses are

Please note that a full list of references (in Harvard style) is given at the end of this document

Systematic Literature Reviews: Overview

According to Aveyard (2014), one of the authorities on literature review writing, systematic literature reviews (SLRs) are the most valid, reliable, and robust types of literature review a researcher can undertake.

If you’re studying a course on public health, radiology, or any other healthcare-related topic, then you’re likely to have run into SLRs before. This is because SLRs, especially with the recently emerging emphasis on evidence-based practice (EBP) in many of the world’s healthcare systems (Marshall, 2014), serve as the principal reference point for evidence-based decision-making (Clarke and Chalmers, 2018).

So why – exactly – are SLRs valued so much by healthcare professionals and policymakers? Another way to phrase this question is as follows: Why do SLRs consistently rank at the top of the so-called “hierarchy of evidence”?

To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the SLR’s main characteristics.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of Evidence (adapted from Murad et al., 2016)

Systematic Literature Reviews: Characteristics

1. Carefully-selected, precisely-formulated review questions (Khan et al., 2003)

The review question that guides an SLR is not plucked out of thin air. Instead, systematic processes are followed to determine what the review question will be.

As a case in point, for quantitative SLRs, Richardson et al.’s (1995) PICO framework is used to devise a review question; for qualitative and mixed methods SLRs, the SPIDER framework is typically used (Cooke, Smith, and Booth, 2012); and for qualitative SLRs, Cleyle and Booth’s (2006) SPICE framework is popular.

Another popular framework is Aslam and Emmanuel’s (2010) FINER formula.

2. Systematic literature search strategies (Aveyard, 2014)

This characteristic is what gives the SLR its name, and it is one of the main reasons SLRs sit atop the hierarchy of evidence (see Figure 1).

A systematic literature search strategy is marked by the following features:

  1. Use of relevant search terms, formed using Boolean operators and keywords (Grewal, Kataria, and Dhawan, 2012);
  2. Clear specification of the types of literature targeted (Wallace and Wray, 2006);
  3. Unambiguous statement of what databases will be searched (Aveyard, 2014);
  4. Discussion and justification of the procedures applied for screening and supplementary literature search (e.g., manual search of reference lists) (Greenhalgh and Peacock, 2005).

3. Inclusion and exclusion criteria (Patino and Ferreira, 2018)

SLRs produce valid and reliable results because they exclude studies that could undermine the veracity of their findings. However, studies are not excluded arbitrarily; instead, inclusion and exclusion criteria are established in advance.

These criteria are based on aspects of the research question (e.g., the examined population), the types of literature targeted, and other practical considerations (e.g., publication date ranges and publication language) (Meline, 2006).

4. Critical appraisal (Hong and Pluye, 2018)

Any studies that are included in the SLR must be subjected to a rigorous, formal, and systematic process of critical appraisal. This ensures that studies with low methodological quality are excluded from the results, thereby maximising the validity and relevance of the SLR’s findings.

Importantly, the critical appraisal process must be guided by the use of a clear framework, since this safeguards against bias (Harrison et al., 2017). Prominent types of critical appraisal frameworks include:

  1. Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) checklists;
  2. Effective Public Health Practice Project’s (EPHPP) Quality Assessment Tool for Quantitative Studies;
  3. La Torre, Backhaus, and Mannocci’s (2015) International Narrative Systematic Assessment (INSA) tool.

5. Systematic, reliable, and reproducible data extraction and evidence synthesis techniques (Cooper et al., 2018)

Irrespective of the type of studies an SLR turns up, researchers must engage with the data set in a trustworthy, reliable, formal, and reproducible manner. There are several ways this may be done. For example, if you need to extract data from a qualitative study, then you might consider using thematic analysis, as described by Nowell et al. (2017).

Following data extraction, a systematic evidence synthesis technique is essential. This ensures that no relevant aspects of the data set have been overlooked. Prominent evidence synthesis techniques include segregated, integrated, and contingent methodologies (Sandelowski et al., 2006).

6. Transparency (Aveyard, 2014)

Since SLRs form the basis of evidence-based practice (EBP), nothing should be hidden from other researchers. Therefore, when publishing an SLR, everything from the databases searched to the completed critical appraisal checklists must be included.

Another important issue is the transparency of the search process itself. To ensure transparency in this area, the authors of SLRs usually publish PRISMA flow diagrams alongside their findings (PRISMA, 2009).

Systematic Literature Reviews: Strengths and Weaknesses

(a) Strengths

1. SLRs offer the strongest evidence for decision-making in many settings (Murad et al., 2016)

SLRs always rank at the top of the hierarchy of evidence (see Figure 1). Clearly, this is a direct consequence of the characteristics listed above (e.g., reliability, validity, transparency, reproducibility, and robustness).

With this in mind, high-quality SLRs are urgently required in many areas of scholarship. The implication of this is that you yourself – as an aspiring researcher or academic – can increase your chances of publication in a prominent journal if you write a high-quality SLR.

2. High-quality SLRs can significantly reduce bias (Aveyard, 2014)

Given that SLRs are formal, structured, rigorous, and comprehensive, they eliminate many of the opportunities that bias has to creep into the process. For example, since the researcher is not subjectively deciding which articles should be included in their review, this almost entirely eliminates selection bias (Andrews, 2017).

3. SLRs summarise large bodies of evidence (Aveyard, 2014)

A wealth of literature exists around any given topic. As a result, for doctors, practitioners, and policymakers who have busy lives, high-quality SLRs allow them to extract the wisdom, findings, and conclusions of 1,000 articles simply by reading one publication.

(b) Weaknesses

1. Most SLRs only consider published studies

Since it is difficult for most researchers to access unpublished studies, these studies tend not to be included in SLRs. This undermines the comprehensiveness of the SLR, and it may mean that the most up-to-date evidence is not included in the review (Müller et al., 2013).

2. SLRs are fairly difficult to design and implement (Hagen-Zanker, McCord, and Holmes, 2011)

Especially for novice researchers, the expertise needed to conduct a high-quality SLR is a significant barrier. Given the essential requirement for SLRs to produce valid and reliable evidence, the whole process is extremely time-consuming, and it often means that multiple researchers must collaborate. Clearly, collaboration of this kind is associated with its own range of difficulties.

3. The dangers of publication bias (Müller et al., 2013)

Since negative or inconclusive results often remain unpublished, the articles that are eventually included in an SLR may include an unreasonable – and unrepresentative – number of positive conclusions. With this in mind, the widespread suppression of negative results gives rise to the danger of publication bias.


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