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Systematic and Complex Reviews

Frameworks for research questions

Different frameworks lend themselves to different discipline focuses and research questions. PICO is the most widely known framework developed mainly for research questions in the health sciences. However, it is also used in other disciplines with minor modifications. Kitchenham (2007) shows an example of PICO being used to define question elements in software engineering:

Population software or Web project
Intervention cross-company project effort estimation model
Comparison single-company project effort estimation model
Outcomes prediction or estimate accuracy
Some examples of other frameworks that may be used include:
  • CIMO (context, intervention, mechanisms, outcomes)
  • PIO (population, intervention, outcomes)
  • SPIDER (sample, phenomenon of interest, design, evaluation, research type)
  • SPICE (setting, perspective, intervention, comparison, evaluation)

To identify the framework which suits your research question(s) best, please refer to Research questions.

Choosing databases

Most guidelines recommend you search a few subject databases when conducting a systemic review. In addition, at least one citation tracking database should be searched to ensure a comprehensive search (Bramer et al., 2017). Ultimately, the choice of specific databases should be in line with the discipline or topic area, and the review’s guiding research question(s) (Hiebl, 2021).

This page lists prominent subject databases for each discipline area. A full list of databases can be found in the relevant Library Subject Guides.

Recommended subject databases

Citation tracking or Multidisciplinary databases

Citation tracking databases cover many different subject areas and harvest information from many subject specific databases.

Discipline specific examples of reviews

Systematic review

Ghaleb, H., Alhajlah, H. H., Bin Abdullah, A. A., Kassem, M. A., & Al-Sharafi, M. A. (2022). A scientometric analysis and systematic literature review for construction project complexity. Buildings, 12(4).

Núñez-Merino, M., Maqueira-Marín, J. M., Moyano-Fuentes, J., & Martínez-Jurado, P. J. (2020). Information and digital technologies of Industry 4.0 and Lean supply chain management: A systematic literature review. International Journal of Production Research, 58(16), 5034-5061. 

Sarrakh, R., Renukappa, S., & Suresh, S. (2021). A systematic literature review evaluating sustainable energy growth in Qatar using the PICO model. In E. Manu & J. Akotia (Eds.), Secondary research methods in the built environment (pp. 88-105). Routledge. 

Systematic review protocol

Berretta, M., Furgeson, J., Zamawe, C., Hamilton, I., Wu, Y., Ferraro, P. J., Haddaway, N., & Eyers, J. (2021). PROTOCOL: Residential energy efficiency interventions: An effectiveness systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 17(4), e1205.


O'Grady, T., Chong, H.-Y., & Morrison, G. M. (2021). A systematic review and meta-analysis of building automation systems. Building and Environment, 195, 107770.

Critical review

Lu, Y., Wu, Z., Chang, R., & Li, Y. (2017). Building Information Modeling (BIM) for green buildings: A critical review and future directions. Automation in Construction, 83, 134-148.


Xu, G., & Shi, X. (2018). Characteristics and applications of fly ash as a sustainable construction material: A state-of-the-art review. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 136, 95-109.

Narrative review

A literature review is a summary and analysis of work published on a topic which forms a necessary part of a thesis or research paper, giving context and outlining the gap which the research will contribute to. It is the most common form of review. See here for more information.

Also referred to generally as Literature review or Narrative literature review.


Skaar, C., Labonnote, N., & Gradeci, K. (2018). From Zero emission buildings (ZEB) to zero emission neighbourhoods (ZEN): A mapping review of algorithm-based LCA. Sustainability, 10(7).


Hanc, M., McAndrew, C., & Ucci, M. (2019). Conceptual approaches to wellbeing in buildings: A scoping review. Building Research and Information, 47(6), 767-783.

Systematic search and review

Mairs, K., McNeil, H., McLeod, J., Prorok, J. C., & Stolee, P. (2013). Online strategies to facilitate health-related knowledge transfer: A systematic search and review. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 30(4), 261-277. 

Systematised review

Nicolson, M. L., Fell, M. J., & Huebner, G. M. (2018). Consumer demand for time of use electricity tariffs: A systematized review of the empirical evidence. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 97, 276-289.


Rouleau, G., Gagnon, M.-P., Côté, J., Payne-Gagnon, J., Hudson, E., & Dubois, C.-A. (2017). Impact of information and communication technologies on nursing care: Results of an overview of systematic reviews. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 19(4), e122.


Sinkovics, N., Gunaratne, D., Sinkovics, R. R., & Molina-Castillo, F.-J. (2021). Sustainable business model innovation: An umbrella review. Sustainability, 13(13).


Eon, C., Breadsell, J. K., Byrne, J., & Morrison, G. M. (2020). The discrepancy between as-built and as-designed in energy efficient buildings: A rapid review. Sustainability, 12(16), 6372.

Qualitative evidence synthesis

Jesiek, B. K., Mazzurco, A., Buswell, N. T., & Thompson, J. D. (2018). Boundary spanning and engineering: A qualitative systematic review. Journal of Engineering Education, 107(3), 380-413.

Mixed methods

Guo, B., & Feng, T. (2019). Mapping knowledge domains of integration in BIM-based construction networks: A systematic mixed-method review. Advances in Civil Engineering, 2019, Article 5161579.

Realist review

Kalantaridis, C., & Küttim, M. (2020). University ownership and information about the entrepreneurial opportunity in commercialisation: A systematic review and realist synthesis of the literature. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 46(5), 1487-1513.

Recommended readings and references

Bramer, W., Rethlefsen, M. L., Kleijnen, J., & Franco, O. (2017). Optimal database combinations for literature searches in systematic reviews: A prospective exploratory study. Systematic Reviews, 6(1), 245-245.

Chelliah, V., Thounaojam, N., Devkar, G., & Laishram, B. (2021). Evaluation of systematic literature reviews in built environment research. In E. Manu & J. Akotia (Eds.), Secondary research methods in the built environment (pp. 55-68). Routledge.

Denyer, D., & Tranfield, D. (2009). Producing a systematic review. In D. A. Buchanan & A. Bryman (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational research methods (pp. 671-689). Sage.

Hiebl, M. R. W. (2021). Sample selection in systematic literature reviews of management research. Organizational Research Methods, Advance online publication.

Ierardi, C., Orihuela, L., & Jurado, I. (2018). Guidelines for a systematic review in systems and automatic engineering. Case study: distributed estimation techniques for cyber-physical systems. 2018 European Control Conference (ECC), 2230-2235.

Information Engineering Lab (n.d.). Systematic review literature search.

Kitchenham, B. A., & Charters, S. (2007). Guidelines for performing systematic literature reviews in software engineering [EBSE Technical Report].

Lagisz, M., Samarasinghe, G., & Nakagawa, S. (2018). Rapid reviews for the built environment: Methodology and guidelines. CRCLCL.

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