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Conduct a Systematic Review

What is the difference between a systematic review and a literature review?

  • Systematic reviews and literature reviews are commonly confused.
  • The main difference between the two is that systematic reviews answer a focused question whereas literature reviews contextualize a topic.

Systematic review

  • Definition
    • High-level overview of primary research on a focused question that identifies, selects, synthesizes, and appraises all high quality research evidence relevant to that question.
  • Goals
    • Answer a focused clinical question
    • Eliminate bias
  • Components
    • Pre-scientific eligibility criteria
    • Systematic search strategy
    • Assessment of the validity of findings
    • Interpretation and presentation of results
    • Reference list
  • Number of Authors
    • Three or more
  • Timeline
    • Months to years
    • Average eighteen months
  • Requirements
    • Thorough knowledge of topic
    • Perform searches of all relevant databases
    • Statistical analysis resources (for meta-analysis)
  • Value
    • Connects practicing clinicians to high quality evidence
    • Supports evidence-based practice

Literature review

  • Definition
    • Qualitatively summarizes evidence on a topic using informal or subjective methods to collect and interpret studies.
  • Goals
    • Provide summary or overview of topic
  • Question
    • Can be a general topic or specific question
  • Components
    • Introduction
    • Methods
    • Discussion
    • Conclusion
    • Reference List
  • Number of Authors
    • One or more
  • Timeline
    • Weeks to months
  • Requirements
    • Understanding of topic
    • Perform searches of one or more databases
  • Value
    • Provides summary of literature on a topic

Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. Available at:

How do I prepare for a systematic review?

Check the following recourses to ensure a systematic review does not already exist or is currently in progress on your topic.

How do I conduct a systematic reviews?

  • Have a clear and focused question.
  • Identify synonyms and related terms (relevant concepts, terminology, spelling differences, colloquialisms, etc.)
  • Use truncation to ensure you get all the variations of the terms (i.e. Canad: -a, -ian).
  • Identify your search limits and criteria.
  • Document your search:
    • Search terms and strings
    • Number of results for each search
    • Date of the search
    • Filter usage (date, language, etc.)

Should I use a citation manager for my systematic review?

  • Yes! Managing sources is instrumental to a successfully organized systematic review process and product.
  • Especially when sifting through thousands of citations, citation management is time efficient.
  • Systematic Review guidelines require you to track what you search, what you find, document what you keep and discard and the rationale as to why you made you those choices.
  • Citation management software allows you to keep track of everything in one place.
  • Export your citation records to a citation management tool. Make sure to check for duplicate records.
  • Some software will allow you to share your citations with other, which is beneficial if you are working on a systematic review with other scholars. 
  • Some recommended citation management software include: Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote Web.
  • For more information and guidance of citation software, visit the University of Guelph’s Managing Your Sources Topic Guide.

Guides for conducting a systematic review

Resources to help with writing a literature review

Guide: Find Sources: Identify Key SourcesGuide: Write a literature reviewGuide: Manage Your Sources

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