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X. Systematic Reviews of the Literature

Jun 28, 2016 by Kathryn Betts Adams

A systematic review of the literature is a great way for a scholar to use a different sort of secondary data and thus conduct a research study without the need for the complexity and expense of primary data collection from human subjects. Reviews of the literature are conducted in every area of social and health sciences, both on basic questions and on treatment or intervention modalities, programs, etc. You might begin a systematic review of the literature after investing time and energy in reviewing the literature for your dissertation, a grant proposal, or another project. An intensive literature review for one of those projects, however, is not the same as a systematic review. This post offers an overview of how to design and conduct your systematic review and construct your manuscript for publication.

Journal Selection for Submitting a Systematic Review

There are few points of difference between a systematic review and other research manuscripts. As with other papers, you need to target an appropriate journal and customize your review’s topic. The interpretations and the implications should be relevant to the journal’s mission and readership. You will want to check the “Instructions to Authors” for journals you’re considering to see whether the journal accepts submissions of systematic reviews and whether they specify any criteria for the review topics they publish. Beyond that, you will want to check page limits and see whether the journal accepts longer manuscripts in the case of a review of the literature. Some journals may allow extra pages for either a literature review or a qualitative study, as noted in the previous post.           

The Topic and Parameters for Inclusion

In designing a systematic review of the literature, there is a necessarily iterative or gradual process at the beginning, somewhat like that with a qualitative study, while you familiarize yourself with the literature on your chosen general topic and see what’s out there. As you do this, you will be refining the purpose of the review, which can usually be thought of as a research question. As you gain familiarity with the research literature in your area of interest, your inclusion criteria and research question(s) will take shape. So, for example, suppose your broad topic and interest is in couples therapy with parents of special-needs children. You provisionally decide your research question will be along the lines of, “Is couples therapy an effective modality for parents of special-needs children?” That sounds good. But your systematic review still needs to be narrowed in scope in order to make it both meaningful and manageable—to carve out a clear “niche” for the reader (other scholars and practitioners) to understand your review. In your preview of the literature (from other papers you’ve already written or a brief scan of the literature) you may have found that the main types of couples therapy studied for parents of special-needs children have been Behavioral Marital Therapy (BMT) and Christian Counseling (CC). You might wish to stick with one of those types of therapy, or you might decide to expand the scope of your review to see if you can find other types and do an all-inclusive review of any couples therapy. In part, this will depend on the numbers you found in your preview. If there are hundreds of studies using BMT with this population (unlikely, but this is a made-up example) you may decide there is a need for a review of only this modality.

The niche or scope of your review needs to be meaningful and clear. You have to place boundaries on the breadth of your topic, including the focus of studies you will review, the population studied, and the treatments or variables studied. You can also determine the type of research modality you will include, a decision that should be based on the purpose of your review. For instance, is the purpose to see the extent of research in a given area?  In that case, you would include all research modalities because your review is seeking to answer “What exists in the literature on BMT for parents with special needs children?” On the other hand, you might wish to review a particular type of study on your topic or apply criteria for the level of rigor you will review (e.g., only quantitative studies with multivariate analyses). The title of your manuscript can also reflect some of these factors about the purpose and scope of your review.

Depending on the topic’s popularity and its history in the literature, your review may need limits on the range of years you include. A relatively new topic may not require you to set any limits on dates, whereas for other types of questions/studies, you may have literature dating back to the early 1900s and you will not wish to include everything. In that case, you will need to consider a reasonable timeframe, based on events in the development of this type of intervention or theory. Sometimes there may be a previous well-known review of the literature on your topic, and in that case it would make sense to date your review from that year forward.

Conducting the Review

Once you have your topic sufficiently narrowed, exclusion and inclusion criteria provisionally decided, and your research questions set, you are ready to begin the systematic search of the literature. While that sounds straightforward, it can be a laborious process to do it well, so if you have access to a coauthor or a student assistant, the work of finding and sifting through studies can be shared. In any case, the most important instructions here are to KEEP TRACK of how you conduct your search, as follows: 

  • Which Internet databases did you search?
  • Which keywords did you use?
  • Which filters (e.g. publication years, age-range) did you use?
  • How many total studies did you find in this way from your searches of various databases, and, if different, how many abstracts did you read? 
  • From those, how many complete studies did you read to determine whether the study met your criteria? 
  • Where else did you search for publications (library shelves, popular literature, reference lists of articles on the topic, clearing houses of systematic reviews, such as the Campbell Collaboration site)?
  • How many studies met criteria and are included in your review? 

Finally, you should note whether you went beyond published works to ask researchers and experts in the field for any unpublished monographs or conference papers?  Doing this is not absolutely necessary, as you can conduct a review of the “published literature,” but including not-yet- or never-published studies makes your review more comprehensive and elevates it to true “systematic” status—the attempt to find everything that meets your inclusion criteria for studies on your topic.

A key to reviewing the literature is extracting key information and keeping good notes on each study. Use of an Excel database or another sort of template or standardized form to keep notes on each study is a prerequisite to the review itself. These notes will be used in creating one or more tables to display key elements of the studies reviewed and in forming impressions about the strength and the direction of evidence on the topic of your review.  

Constructing the Manuscript for a Systematic Review

The systematic literature review is a “study” of sorts, wherein you are summarizing or synthesizing a specific set of existing studies according to a set of inclusion criteria that you determine hand-in-hand with the appropriate research question(s). Thus, your final manuscript will include the elements of any research manuscript:  An introduction and brief literature review will lay out the scope of the problem, followed by the justification and purpose of the current study (your review).

The Methods section will contain the information about where and how you searched the literature, including the tools and keywords you used, how many total studies you found and how many you culled for your final sample of studies after applying the inclusion and exclusion criteria you set. Often, a small table or figure is used to convey this information most clearly.

Next, the Findings section will revolve around a long table or tables presenting the studies. These studies will also be found in your reference list, so in the table you should note the studies by the author(s) and year of publication. You will want to include columns to note key variables and findings in the study that pertain to your topic and your review. It is appropriate to show the total sample size of each study (the N). Somewhere in the text of your Findings section you will add these to show your total sample of people (or other units of analysis) included in your review. You may have more than one table if your review covers more than one general topic, such as BMT and Christian Counseling from the example above. In the Findings section you will synthesize important aspects of the review. You will summarize the salient similarities and differences within the set of studies. As in other social science or health studies, keep the Findings section objective and descriptive.

The Discussion section is where you interpret the findings from your table(s) and text and draw conclusions from your review, citing other relevant literature for support. You will want to discuss the methodologies you found and did not find, and how strong the evidence is for certain findings across studies. Note not only any limitations about how you conducted your review (your methods in the current study), but also the limitations among the studies you’ve reviewed. For instance, you might note that the state of research on your topic is not as advanced as it could be, because most of the studies were done on nonequivalent, non-randomly-assigned groups, and many did not have control conditions that were fully explained.

Finally, as in other studies, describe some implications for practice and/or policy that follow from the conclusions of your review. If you find fairly consistent evidence across studies reviewed, both your conclusions and implications will be easier to write. If the evidence is inconsistent, your conclusions and any implications for practice or policy may be stated with caveats and exceptions. Cite literature as appropriate to support the implications you note. Future directions for research based on the findings in your review can focus on whatever was lacking in the studies reviewed—more rigorous studies are needed, more focus on certain types of settings or populations, etc.—or in the event of inconclusive/mixed findings, you can recommend where more research is needed to clarify.

The posts in this blog series have addressed many of the steps in preparing a research study for publication in the health and social sciences, focusing on quantitative studies, with additional posts that offer insights into qualitative or mixed methods and systematic review manuscripts. These blog posts are offered in a suggested order for getting your publication done and submitted. Your process may be somewhat different, but it helps to keep in mind that the sections of a research paper are fairly standard, and it may be helpful to tackle them one at a time in order to prevent feeling overwhelmed. 

The suggestions offered in this series are meant to be a resource beyond the basics you studied as a graduate student. Thus, as you work to identify your research topic, choose your target journal, analyze your findings, and write your manuscript, please also rely on textbooks that describe the research process and whatever methodology you will be using. And if you find you need additional help and support, check out the Academic Coaching and Writing resources on this website or contact us about working with an individual coach. Good luck preparing, submitting, and revising your research articles! 

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