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Writing a Systematic Review

Developing your Review Question

Boland et al. break this process into six steps

  1. Identify a topic of interest to you.
  2. Conduct exploratory or "scoping" searches to determine if your area of interest is well-suited for a systematic review. For example, can you find other systematic reviews that have been recently published on your topic? How many studies have been conducted on your topic, and what types of evidence do they provide? Consider broadening, narrowing, or shifting your topic at this stage, if necessary. 
  3. Focus your ideas to define the scope of the review. Try using a mind-mapping exercise to focus your topic based on the studies that you encountered in your exploratory searches. A final review question should indeed be a question that can be answered through synthesis and analysis of resources that are available to you. 
  4. Once you finalize your review question, develop your inclusion and exclusion criteria. Inclusion criteria (also known as eligibility criteria) are the attributes required for a study to be included in your review. Exclusion criteria are the attributes that will disqualify a study from being included in your review. Examples of these criteria may include date of publication, study design or methods, and language of publication. 
  5. Consider contacting experts on the research topic to ask for feedback on your review question and protocol. 
  6. Write a review protocol. The protocol is the roadmap or set of methods that you will use to answer your research question. 

SOURCE: Boland, A., Cherry, G., & Dickson, R. (Eds.). (2017). Doing a systematic review: A student's guide. SAGE Publications. 

Conducting Exploratory Searches

Formulating a strong research question for a systematic review is a process. While you may have an idea about the topic you want to explore, your specific research question is what will drive your review and requires some consideration. 

You will want to conduct preliminary or exploratory searches of the literature as you refine your question. In these searches you will want to:

  • Determine if a systematic review has already been conducted on your topic and if so, how yours might be different, or how you might shift or narrow your anticipated focus.
  • Scope the literature to determine if there is enough literature on your topic to conduct a systematic review.
  • Identify key concepts and terminology 
  • Identify seminal or landmark studies
  • Identify key studies that you can test your research strategy against

Frameworks for Developing a Research Question

Try using a framework to develop your research question.

For example, a commonly used framework in health sciences is PICOPatient/Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome.

Another common framework is PEO (population, exposure, outcomes).

For other frameworks, you can use:

Frameworks for the systematic review research question

SOURCE: Step 1-1.1: Frame the Question, from PIECES; Excel workbook designed to help conduct, document, and manage a systematic review. Created by Margaret J. Foster, MS, MPH, AHIP, Systematic Reviews Coordinator, Associate Professor, Medical Sciences Library, Texas A&M University. CC-BY-3.0 license


This guide was adapted from Systematic Reviews by University of Texas Libraries ( which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.