Skip to Main Content

Systematic Reviews

Planning your search

How do I get started?

When you're starting out on your systematic review its a good idea to do a quick scoping search to evaluate the amount of literature available on your topic.  The scoping search may influence the parameters of your systematic review depending on the quality of relevant literature you find.

Where to search?

Discovery and Google Scholar are good places to perform a broad scoping search.

Search Prospero to see if there is already a systematic review on your topic.  If there is you might decide to focus your review on a different aspect of the topic.

The success of your systematic review will depend on formulating a clearly defined and focused question. If your search question is too broad or vague you will retrieve too many irrelevant search results.  

There are various frameworks available to help you formulate your question.  Carrying out a structured search: Using a framework has more information, however most frameworks are focused towards the health disciplines.


   Use a framework such as PEO to construct your research question


PEO is a framework that can be readily adapted towards the social sciences:


Population or Problem Exposure or Experience Outcome

Defines the group or the problem you are studying

Defines what the group has experienced or been exposed to The effect of the experience or exposure on the group


Develop your search strategy

Before you begin to search you must formulate your search strategy.  This is an iterative process - you won't get it right the first time!

Begin by breaking your question into your chosen search framework.  For example; the search question: Does child sexual abuse effect educational attainment? Can be broken down into the PEO framework.

P: Population E: Experience O: Outcome
Children Sexual abuse Educational attainment

To ensure your search is comprehensive you must consider other terms to include:

  • synonyms
  • abbreviations
  • related terms
  • alternative spellings
  • singular/plural 
  • thesaurus terms

For example:

P: Population E: Experience O: Outcome
Children Sexual abuse Educational attainment
child sexual violence educational outcomes
adolescent unwanted touching consequences
youth rape learning outcomes
young forced sex school attendance
toddler sexual harassment school absence
sex truancy
school drop out
failing courses



Developing your inclusion and exclusion criteria

Before you begin your systematic review you will need to develop the inclusion and exclusion criteria. These criteria will assess the relevance and quality of the studies you include in your systematic review.  By using the PEO framework you have already began to develop concepts which form the basis of your inclusion/exclusion criteria.  However, you now need to develop other criteria which are essential in obtaining good quality, focused papers which answer your search question.

Criteria to consider could include:

Type of Research Include qualitative papers, case studies or interviews
Exclude randomised control trials, clinical trials
Time period Include studies published within the last 10 years
Exclude studies older than 10 years
Geographic area Include studies held within the UK
Exclude studies held outside the UK

For additional information on this topic see resources below:

Using material on this page