In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Systematic Review Methods

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Software
  • The Quality of Systematic Reviews
  • Dissemination of Systematic Reviews
  • Training Materials

Social Work Systematic Review Methods
Michael Saini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0034


A systematic review is a comprehensive, transparent, and systematic literature review method for preparing, maintaining, and disseminating high-quality evidence. In contrast to narrative reviews, systematic reviews follow standard protocols for locating, retrieving, screening, and synthesizing studies to answer questions relevant to practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. Systematic reviews are usually prepared by a team of reviewers, who together have a thorough understanding of both the content area and review methodology. Systematic reviews have largely focused on effectiveness questions of specific interventions. Recent attention has also focused on developing guidelines for systematic reviews of qualitative studies, diagnostic and prognostic tests, and observational studies.

Introductory Works

With the escalating accumulation of knowledge in libraries, websites, electronic databases, and in the grey literature, there is a growing emphasis on methods for synthesizing knowledge to answer specific research questions. Recent developments have been made to improve the methods for retrieving, screening, and synthesizing evidence. Although these methods are becoming more sophisticated, methods for conducting reviews of the literature are not new. Egger, et al. 2001 traces the emergence of systematic reviews dating back to the 18th century. Greenhalgh 1997; Light and Pillemar 1984; Pai, et al. 2004; and Petitti 1994 provide good overviews of the basic steps for conducting systematic reviews. An important work for social workers is Mullen 2006, as it is one of the rare examples of writings about systematic reviews within a social work context.

  • Egger M., G. Smith, and K. O’Rourke. 2001. Rationale, potentials, and promise of systematic reviews. In Systematic reviews in health care. 2d ed. Edited by Matthias Egger, George Davey Smith, and Douglas Altman. London: BMJ.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470693926

    Traces the historical roots of systematic reviews dating back to the 18th century and provides easy-to-follow examples of the emergence of systematic reviews to improve clinical decision making.

  • Greenhalgh, T. 1997. Papers that summarize other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analyses). British Medical Journal 315:672–675.

    As part of a series produced by the British Medical Association, this overview provides a simple and easy to follow introduction to studies that review other studies. With the focus on statistics for the nonstatistician, this article is a good entry point into the process and methods of systematic reviews.

  • Light, R. J., and D. B. Pillemar. 1984. Summing up: The science of reviewing research. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Although dated, this introductory text is a readable guide to aspects of both quantitative and qualitative reviews.

  • Mullen, E. J. 2006. Choosing outcome measures in systematic reviews: Critical challenges. Research on Social Work Practice 16.1: 84–90.

    DOI: 10.1177/1049731505280950

    Despite the increased use of systematic reviews to answer social work related questions, there are few articles that address systematic reviews within the context of social work. This article is one of the few exceptions and a must read for an introduction in formulating review questions relevant to social work.

  • Pai, M., M. McCulloch, J. D. Gorman, N. Pai, W. Enaroria, G. Kennedy, P. Tharyan, and J. M. Colford Jr. 2004. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses: An illustrated, step-by-step guide. National Medical Journal of India 17.2: 86–95.

    This illustrated guide to systematic reviews situates evidence gleaned from various types of reviews (narrative, meta-analysis, systematic reviews) and provides a good overview of systematic reviews by breaking the process into chronological steps.

  • Petitti, Diana B. 1994. Meta-analysis, decision analysis, and cost-effectiveness analysis: Methods for quantitative synthesis in medicine. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Covers some of the important aspects of the systematic review process alongside methods of decision analysis and economic evaluation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.