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Prevention & Community Health: Systematic Review

Research Guide for the GWSPH Department of Prevention and Community Health

Step #1 Defining Your Research Question

A main characteristic of a systematic review is a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies.

To help with clearly defining your research question, consider using PICO to help you frame your question in a complete format.

  • Patient or problem
  • Intervention
  • Comparison
  • Outcome

TIP: Check to see if there is a systematic review already published on your topic!

Step #2: Create a Protocol for Search Criteria

Before you begin your search it is important to establish your eligibility criteria. A systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria. Include the following:

  • What are your inclusion criteria?
  • What are your exclusion criteria?

TIP: Your PICO statement should help drive your choice of inclusion/exclusion criteria./p>

EXAMPLE: population characteristics (gender, age, disease...); study type (see Study Design 101); date (specific date range if applicable); language (e.g., English only); intervention (e.g., participants who completed smoking intervention program).

What is a Systematic Review?

“A systematic review is a review of a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select, and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review.”

Source: Moher, D., Liberati, A., Tetzlaff, J., & Altman, D. G. (2009). Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. BMJ: British Medical Journal, (7716). 332. 

TIP: Need more information?  Visit the Systematic Review Guide

Registered Protocol: PROSPERO

Once you have created  your "protocol" good practice is to register it with PROSPERO, an International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews.


  • Registration is free!
  • You can search for systematic review protocols on your topic. (Very helpful to view other search strategies and inclusion/exclusion criteria)
  • Registering your protocol may help you publish your systematic review 

Step #3 Search Strategy

Searching for the literature on your topic? Begin by developing a search strategy with combination keywords and MeSH terms. Consider the following databases (subject databases will depend heavily on your research topic)

Grey Literature: (Go to Grey Literature for more resources/links)