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What is a systematic literature review?

Broadly speaking, a systematic literature review is a type of review that collects multiple research studies and summarises them to answer a research question using rigorous methods (Gough, Oliver, and Thomas 2017: 5).

Gough, Oliver, and Thomas (2017: 4) outline the main activities of a systematic review as:

  • Identifying relevant research
  • Systematically critiquing research reports
  • Synthesising findings
  • Understanding conclusions from the research

Key characteristics

Key characteristics of systematic reviews include:

  • A clear set of objectives
  • A reproducible methodology, including defined eligibility criteria for inclusion of studies, and a systematic search strategy that attempts to identify all studies that meet the eligibility criteria
  • Assessment of the quality of studies
  • A synthesis of the findings of studies that have been included in the review


Systematic reviews are guided by plans that are devised by the researcher before it is conducted. These plans are known as protocols.

Systematic review protocols may include:

  • The rationale for the systematic review
  • The method of the systematic review, including the inclusion and exclusion criteria for study selection

Pros and cons of systematic literature reviews

Systematic reviews can be regarded as a reliable source of information, particularly when they are high-quality reviews that include all relevant studies and therefore minimise bias.

Like other types of literature reviews that we will explore later in the course, systematic reviews have their pros and cons.

Pros of systematic literature reviews Cons of systematic literature reviews
Bias is reduced by the use of a systematic method for selecting studies for the review. Often more time-consuming than other types of review.
Transparency of the methodology and search strategy enhance the replicability of the review. Grey literature (such as government reports and policy documents) are not usually included, which may bias perspectives.
A more rigorous type of review than others.  

Your task

What comes to mind when you think about systematic literature reviews?

What is your experience of systematic literature reviews?


Gough, D., Oliver, S. and Thomas, J. (2017) ‘Introducing Systematic Reviews’ in An Introduction to Systematic Reviews. 3rd edn. ed. by Gough, D., Oliver, S. and Thomas, J. Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.

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This article is from the free online course:

Systematic Literature Review: An Introduction

Coventry University