Systematic reviews and meta-analyses: a step-by-step guide

Step 1

Why do a systematic review?

The massive expansion of research output, both in peer-reviewed publications, and unpublished, e.g. in conference presentations or symposia, mean it is difficult to establish what work has been done in your area already, and to ensure that clinical practice keeps up to date with the best research evidence.  See this presentation by Susan Shenkin for an Introduction to Systematic Reviews.

A systematic review is often required as part of undergraduate or postgraduate theses, grant proposals, and establishing research agendas. It will be most useful where:

• there is a substantive research question

• several empirical studies have been published

• there is uncertainty about the results

Systematic reviews can be of interventions (i.e. randomised controlled trials) or observations (i.e. case control or cohort studies). The type of study to be included will depend on your research question. Although sociology and psychology have been performing systematic reviews of observational studies for decades, many of the recent resources have been developed within a medical framework using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to assess whether a treatment is effective or not. In psychology and related disciplines, observational studies are more common (as RCTs may not be feasible or ethical, e.g. it would not be possible to randomise children to poor or enriched social environments to assess impact on cognition), and systematic reviews have a very important role to play.


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