About Systematic Reviews

Strengths and Weaknesses
of Systematic Reviews

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With the advent of evidence-based medicine, systematic reviews have gained popularity. They require a thorough investigation of all the existing research to justify a certain treatment protocol. A systematic review summarizes all the evidence in an attempt to answer a specific research question. When guidelines are formulated or new treatment protocols need to be prescribed, clinicians look at systematic reviews conducted on the topic as the basis from which to make their decisions. Systematic reviews are at the top level of the evidence pyramid.

Systematic reviews are considered credible sources since they are comprehensive, reproducible, and precise in stating the outcomes. The type of review system used and the approach taken depend on the goals and objectives of the research. To choose the best-suited review system, researchers must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

Let us now look at the strengths and limitations of systematic reviews.

Strengths Of Systematic Reviews

Systematic reviews have become increasingly popular owing to their transparency, accuracy, replicability, and reduced risk of bias. Some of the main benefits of systematic reviews are;

Specificity

Researchers can answer specific research questions of high importance. For example, the efficacy of a particular drug in the treatment of an illness.

Explicit Methodology

A systematic review requires rigorous planning. Each stage of the review is predefined to the last detail. The research question is formulated using the PICO (population, intervention, comparison, and outcome) approach. A strict eligibility criteria is then established for inclusion and exclusion criteria for selecting the primary studies for the review. Every stage of the systematic review methodology is pre-specified to the last detail and made publicly available, even before starting the review process. This makes all the stages in the methodology transparent and reproducible.

Reliable And Accurate Results

The results of a systematic review are either analyzed qualitatively and presented as a textual narrative or quantitatively using statistical methods such as meta-analyses and numeric effect estimates. The quality of evidence or the confidence in effect estimates is calculated using the standardized GRADE approach.

Comprehensive And Exhaustive

A systematic review involves a thorough search of all the available data on a certain topic. It is exhaustive and considers every bit of evidence in synthesizing the outcome. Primary sources for the review are collected from databases and multiple sources, such as blogs from pharmaceutical companies, unpublished research directly from researchers, government reports, and conference proceedings. These are referred to as grey literature. The search criteria and keywords used in sourcing are specific and predefined.

Reproducible

Every detail in each stage of the systematic review methodology is pre-determined and published before the review starts. This publication is called the review protocol. This helps peer-reviewers assess the replicability of the reviews. Replicability helps establish a greater degree of confidence in the review.

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Weaknesses Of Systematic Reviews

Although systematic reviews are robust tools in scientific research they are not immune to errors. They can be misleading, or even harmful if the data is inappropriately handled or if they are biased. Some of the limitations of systematic reviews include:

Mass Production

Due to the popularity systematic reviews have gained, they tend to be used more than required. The growth rate of systematic reviews has outpaced the growth rate of studies overall. This results in redundancy. For example, a survey published in the BMJ[1], included 73 randomly selected meta-analyses published in 2010 found that for two-thirds of these studies, there was at least one, and sometimes as many as 13, additional meta-analyses published on the same topic by early 2013.

Risk of Bias

Although systematic reviews have many advantages, they are also more susceptible to certain types of biases. A bias is a systematic or methodological error that causes misrepresentation of the study outcomes. As bias can appear at any stage, authors should be aware of the specific risks at each stage of the review process. Most of the known errors in systematic reviews arise in the selection and publication stages. The eligibility criterion in a systematic review helps to avoid selection bias. Poor study design and execution can also result in a biased outcome. It’s important to learn about the types of bias in systematic reviews.

Expressing Strong Opinions by Stealth

Selective outcome reporting is a major threat to a systematic review. The author or reviewer may decide to only report a selection of the statistically significant outcomes that suit his interest. The possibility of unfair or misleading interpretation of evidence outcomes in a systematic review can have serious implications.

Conclusion

Like any review system, systematic reviews have their advantages and disadvantages. Understanding them is essential to making a choice of which review system to use.

References

Overlapping meta-analyses on the same topic: survey of published studies. BMJ 2013; 347:f4501

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