The Systematic Review Research Process: 8 Types of Systematic Reviews You Should Know

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In general, a systematic review describes the rigorous process of systematically searching, collecting, synthesizing, and reporting data from studies to answer a well-defined research question. One of the first times we saw something resembling a “systematic review” in history was in 1753 when James Lind reported on all the known unbiased evidence and data on scurvy. However, systematic reviews as a research method truly rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s with the help of Archie Cochrane and his influential texts. Originally, systematic reviews were done manually. Now manual systematic reviews have begun to change over to systematic review software. The demand for quality evidence-based research has continued to grow as people are searching for more access to high-quality research and reviewed literature. Today, we see “systematic reviews” in some form or another across numerous industries, studies, and research fields. Systematic reviews are used in health industries, academia, toxicology, food sciences, and more. Systematic reviews include analysis and reporting that provides researchers with quality data and evidence to answer their research question. Learn more about the level of evidence of a systematic review.

Systematic reviews impact a vast number of industries and job roles, whether you’re a medical device professional, pharmacovigilance specialist, academic researcher, regulatory affairs expert, epidemiologist, risk analyst, or allied health professional. In these fields and many more, your job is probably somehow influenced by the studies and results of systematic reviews, even if you're not the individual conducting the reviews. 

Although systematic reviews are seen throughout the global research community, there is a diverse range of terms and definitions used to describe the different review types and methods. Terms can change over the years and vary across research fields. For example, the review types you see in medicine or those in other health industries may vary from the review types and methods you see in the field of academia. In this post, we’re taking a general look at some of the most common types of systematic reviews, focusing on those that are defined (at least in some capacity) by a systematic approach to research:

1. Systematic Reviews

A systematic review is the process of systematically searching, gathering, synthesizing, and reporting data to answer a specific, well-defined research question. Within this type of review, we also see sub-categories including interventional reviews (examining whether or not a particular intervention works for a specific outcome), diagnostic reviews (examining how diagnostic tests work for patients), prognostic reviews (attempting to efficiently and accurately predict disease outcomes) and many other review types. 

Best practices for conducting systematic reviews may differ between organizations, studies, and fields (e.g. the Cochrane Collaboration has its own preferred best review practices compared to other organizations) but typically recommend dual independent screening, which is when multiple people review the literature and evidence to determine what to include in the studies. When conducting the formal quality assessment review, it is essential to have clearly defined criteria or question to inform the exclusion or inclusion of references, assessment of the quality or risk of bias of included studies, and a synthesis of data and evidence. A systematic review typically has strict quality assessment attempts to ensure that the data meets the specified standards.

These reviews are typically done to assess what is currently known in the literature and develop recommended practices based on that evidence. Systematic reviews are also used to identify uncertainty in topics and recommend future research. Results from systematic reviews are usually presented as a narrative, in tables, and graphically using charts such as forest plots.

2. Literature Reviews

The name “literature review” is also sometimes used interchangeably with “systematic review” or “systematic literature review” depending on the industry. For example, “literature review” or “systematic literature review” are used widely in regulatory and medical device research to describe what is often a systematic review of the evidence although there may be differences in approaches and methods. This is somewhat confusing because in other fields, a literature review may be used to describe expert reviews that are conducted non-systematically. Quality assessment is not always definite in a literature review and results are presented as a narrative in most cases. When working with a literature review, you will want to check if the review included quality assessment standards. 

3. Umbrella Reviews

Umbrella reviews summarize data from multiple systematic reviews, rather than looking at primary research studies. You can consider them to be a “review of reviews” or “overview of reviews.” Researchers access a variety of previously conducted reviews and compile them into one review document or research article. Umbrella reviews are typically used when the researcher needs to address competing interventions in different reviews to report and highlight research results. Umbrella reviews typically include quality assessment of the studies within the reviews or of the reviews themselves. The results of the analysis are often presented graphically or tabularly and include some narrative aspects. 

4. Scoping Reviews

A scoping review can be done in conjunction with any of the other review and analysis types on this list. Typically, a scoping review aims to determine the potential size and scope of literature available. A research team might conduct a scoping review to help develop, prioritize, and refine research priorities and inform future reviews or primary research. Scoping reviews are also often used to predict resource requirements (time and budget) to help define review protocols and standards. Since scoping reviews are designed to determine the size and scope of literature available, they include comprehensive searching of available literature in multiple databases but quality assessment is not needed. Scoping reviews are presented in a tabular format and include a narrative. 

5. Rapid Reviews

The rapid review is essentially a fast-tracked version of the systematic review. Rapid reviews are typically done when policymakers are working within a specific, tight timeframe and need a quick turnaround on their research question. As a result, some critical systematic review steps are either modified or skipped entirely in a rapid review. In rapid reviews, quality assessment typically gets modified and standards are adjusted. For example, we might see less comprehensive search strategies, reduced use of grey literature (which can be challenging to find and process), more basic data extraction and analysis, and only simple quality appraisal. Since rapid review methods leave out important steps in the review process and other systematic review types offer a more comprehensive review, it is recommended to use this review process only when the analysis needs to be done in a tight time frame. Results from a rapid review are often presented in a narrative and tabular format. 

6. Qualitative Reviews

A qualitative review looks at themes and concepts across individual qualitative studies. Qualitative reviews may also be known as “meta synthesis” or “qualitative evidence synthesis.” Qualitative reviews employ quality assessment on the analysis, but unlike systematic reviews, where the assessment is done to determine inclusion or exclusion, quality assessment in a qualitative review is used to mediate messages. Naturally, this type of review uses a narrative approach to reporting results, but often include tables and diagrams.

7. State-of-the-Art Reviews

While most systematic reviews include the entire scope of research literature available on a particular topic, the state-of-the-art review generally focuses on recently published literature to assess current matters. A state-of-the-art review will often highlight new ideas or gaps in research with no official quality assessment. State-of-the-art is also a term used heavily in the medical device space. For researchers working on clinical evaluation reports (CERs), establishing “state-of-the-art” means describing “what is currently and generally considered standard of care, or best practice, for the medical condition or treatment for which the device is used.” Although state-of-the-art is typically considered just one section of the CER, it’s important to note that this type of review has an impact on all other aspects of the CER and if the state-of-the-art section fails, the entire report could also be invalidated. In general, state-of-the-art reviews tend to report results using both narrative forms and a tabular component. 

8. Mixed Study Reviews

When more than one research method is used to perform an analysis, it’s known as a mixed study review. In most cases, a mixed study review involves combining multiple systematic review methods to synthesize different types of research. An example of this would be combining evidence from quantitative and qualitative research studies. Another characteristic of a mixed study review is the use of appraisal tools or specific appraisal processes compared to other types of reviews. Since these reviews incorporate multiple different study types, the reporting of the results may include narrative, graphical, and tabular components. 

Bonus Review Type: Meta Analysis

Although this isn’t technically a type of systematic review, we would be remiss to not mention meta analysis in this post. At one point some teams used the terms meta analysis and systematic review interchangeably. Meta analysis is now more commonly used to describe a quantitative synthesis method. Meta analysis is the process of statistically combining and comparing quantitative studies. However, in many research fields, meta analysis is no longer considered a type of review. Instead, researchers use meta analysis to describe the statistical technique used to combine research results within a systematic review, but it can also be used in research that was not collected systematically. 

Using These Types of Review Methods for Your Research Studies

Applying a systematic approach to research and analysis minimizes bias in study selection and synthesis to best inform decision-making. Additionally, applying systematic methods to research also improves the transparency and reproducibility of the research process, which is critical to maximize review utility. 

Systematic review software like DistillerSR offers a highly configurable platform to conduct all types of systematic review methods. Regardless of your industry or the type of review you perform, DistillerSR enables teams to complete reviews efficiently and effectively according to their protocol. DistillerSR automates manual steps in the review process so that you can complete the analysis in a timely manner while not compromising the review quality. Want to see DistillerSR systematic review software in action? Request a free demo and see how DistillerSR can be easily configured to your preferred systematic review type. 

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Jennifer Baguss
About the Author

Jennifer Baguss

As a marketing specialist, Jennifer Baguss brings years of digital content writing and marketing experience to the EP team. Her background in journalism makes her a thoughtful and concise writer with a keen interest in taking complicated concepts and making them easily digestible for those who wish to learn. When she's not writing, you can catch her on two wheels, mountain biking, road biking, and even fat biking in the winter!

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