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Systematic reviews - searching for literature: Introduction

What is this guide for?

This guide will help you to undertake the literature search component of a systematic review. Further reading about systematic reviews in general and how to undertake them can be found in the Help and support tab of this guide. Having reviewed this guide you will be able to:

  • Describe the process used to undertake a literature search
  • Identify which resources to search
  • Apply the research question/keywords to effectively interrogate data sources
  • Employ relevant search tools provided by different data sources, particularly subject headings
  • Explain the expectations/limitations of undertaking a search
  • Analyse the structure of search strategies previously undertaken.

What is a systematic review?

"Definitions of systematic reviews vary but high quality reviews usually aim to answer a research question by:

  • identifying all relevant published and unpublished evidence on the subject of the review
  • selecting studies for inclusion
  • assessing the quality of every included study
  • synthesising the findings from all of the studies in an unbiased way
  • presenting a balanced summary of the findings." (Centre for Reviews and Dissemination 2009)

Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, 2009. Systematic reviews: CRD's guidance for undertaking reviews in health care [online]. York: University of York. Available from: [Accessed 20 September 2020].

What is significant about the literature search in a systematic review?

"A well-designed systematic review includes...a thorough and reproducible search of the literature...“ (Harvard 2018)

This means that it may be a lengthy undertaking and you must be prepared to put time aside to do this. The literature search is a key component in a systematic review.


Harvard Library, 2018. Systematic Reviews and Meta Analysis: Systematic review Q&A: What is a systematic review? [online]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Available from: [Accessed 30 September 2020].

Managing your references and writing for submission/publication

Before undertaking your literature search, you should consider using reference management software to:

  • Manage the large number of references you may retrieve
  • Create the citations and references in your written work.

Particular tasks where the software will help to save you a lot of time include:

  • Title and abstract sifting
  • Full text harvesting
  • Writing for submission/publication.

Bournemouth University supports EndNote reference management software and the Bournemouth University referencing style (Bournemouth University Harvard) is available for the software. For more information look at the managing references section of this guide.