Many students we see at Skills@Library are carrying out systematic literature reviews for their assignments or final year projects. If you’re doing one, and you’re not sure what it involves, we’ll explain a bit more in this blog post and share some helpful resources where you can find even more information.

The term ‘systematic review’ also refers to a type of academic article you may have come across in your reading. Your own systematic literature review will demonstrate the same methodical approach, but on a much smaller scale. It’s important to remember that the kind of systematic review you will see published in an academic journal is often the result of several years’ work by a team of researchers, so don’t be intimidated!

A systematic literature review involves carrying out a comprehensive, methodical search and then documenting the following information:

  • a comprehensive list of what keywords were searched and if any other search techniques were used;
  • where they were searched (if this was on a library catalogue or specific databases);
  • how many results were generated for each search;
  • if any filters were applied to the results;
  • specifying after each stage whether the amount of results increased or decreased and to what extent.

The search should be explained step-by-step, so that it can be easily replicated by another researcher.

Systematic reviews also have a list of inclusion and exclusion criteria to enable the reviewers to narrow down the evidence to just the most relevant ones, meaning you’re not going to be expected to include hundreds of articles in your assignment, but just the ones that fit your criteria best. You’ll then critically evaluate the evidence just as you would do in other literature reviews.

A systematic literature review is different from a “traditional” literature review because it aims to ‘‘gather all the eligible evidence available using an explicit, documented and reproducible methodology’’ (Dalton, 2019, p.164). Findings are then analysed in a systematic way (no surprises there!) and often synthesised in what is called ‘meta-analysis’ (which is where you combine and statistically analyse the data from all the articles you’re reviewing). You might not need to do a meta-analysis for your assignment, so do check this with your tutor.

Whilst since the 1970s, systematic literature reviews have been commonplace in the health sciences, we are now seeing them emerge in social sciences, too; for example, in the development of policy. With a dearth of information readily available to researchers across the globe, systematic literature reviews are becoming an increasingly popular methodology to help guide practitioners, from a wide range of disciplines, as well as decision and policy makers.

Below are a number of useful links to help guide you with your systematic literature review:

Here is helpful guidance from the UNC Chapel Hill Health Science Library, including a convenient template (the “PRISMA diagram”) you can complete to outline your review.

Here is guidance from Research Support, University of Leeds.

Here is guidance from the SAGE Methods Map, which the University of Leeds has access to.

Here is further guidance from The University of Manchester.

We have several books in the Library about doing systematic reviews. Here are three that  you might be interested in:

Boland, A., Cherry, M.G., and Dickson, R. eds. 2017. Doing a systematic review: a student’s guide. 2nd ed. London: SAGE

Bettany-Saltikov, J. 2016. How to do a systematic literature review in nursing: a step-by-step guide. 2nd ed. London: McGraw Hill Open University Press

Petticrew, M. and Roberts, H. 2006. Systematic reviews in the social sciences: a practical guide. Oxford: Blackwell

As always, feel free to get in touch with us via any of the below with any follow-up queries you may have:

In-person: Skills office on the first floor of the Laidlaw Library

Tel: +44 (0)113 343 4096




Dalton, M. 2019. How individual consultations with a librarian can support

systematic reviews in the social sciences. Journal of Information Literacy. 13(2),



Emily Wheeler & Sunny Dhillon

Learning Advisors