The form of a review generally depends on its purpose and area of interest and might focus on effectiveness of interventions, key conceptual debates, or something else. Reviews generally fall along a continuum from aggragative to interpretive.
For more information see Shaw & Holland (2014). Reviewing research. In Doing Qualitative Research in Social Work. Sage.
Below is a summary of a good overview published by Viktor, L. (2008). Systematic Reviewing.Social Research Update, 54. University of Surrey. For more information, also see the "Useful Books" box at the bottom of this page.
What is a systematic review?
"Systematic reviews are a method of identifying and synthesising all the available research evidence of sufficient quality concerning a specific subject. The aim is to review and synthesise evidence in a transparent and rigorous way to enhance the validity and reliability of the findings."
Systematic reviews came to prominence in clinical medicine focused on interventions and outcomes and prioritized studies that were randomized controlled trials. They are usually conducted in a staged process and are focused on answering a particular question or set of questions.
How is it different from a traditional literature review?
In a systematic review, the focus on the comprehensiveness of the search, the quality of the evidence, and the fact that it is conducted very systematically using transparent and rigorous processes contributes to the reliability and validity of its findings as compared to a traditional literature review. Systematic reviews, focused on answering a specific question, are "less a discussion of the literature, and more a scientific tool...to summarize, appraise, and communicate the results and implications of otherwise unmanageable quantities of research." (Petticrew & Roberts, 2006, p. 10).
What is a systematic review in the social sciences?
In the social sciences, systematic reviews generally come out of the social policy area. Traditionally, they followed the methodology and approach taken in clinical medicine, using a highly prescribed staged methodology, statistical meta-analysis, etc. This approach has been adapted and extended in the social sciences allowing for more flexibility, less focus on comprehensiveness, the inclusion of a wider range of research and other methods of analysis (e.g. narrative), and using the method as a means to build theory.
These organizations are focused on systematic reviews and provide resources to support conducting them.
The above resources include detailed guidelines and procedures for conducting systematic reviews. Some first steps to consider include:
1) Reviews should start with a meaningful and useful question, do you have a defined question? Is a systematic review the best way to approach this question?
2) Have you searched for other systematic reviews that have already been done on this question/topic?
3) Develop your detailed protocol.
4) Develop an effective search strategy.
Often a systematic review is registered before it is undertaken. This article details why and where one might do this (e.g. in addtion to registries at Cochrane and Campbell, which are restricted to systematic reviews conducted within their organizations, other registries are more open, such as PROSPERO, Research Registry, INPLASY, OSF Registries, and protocols.io). See this article for more info:
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