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Systematic and Complex Reviews

Frameworks for research questions

A framework is simply a tool that helps you to identify the important concepts in your research question. Different frameworks lend themselves more effectively to  the  focus or needs of different disciplines or the specific research question.
The most popular frameworks in health are:
PICO (Population/Problem, Intervention/Investigation, Comparison, Outcome)
PCC (Population, Concept, Context)
Examples of other frameworks include:

PIO (Population, Intervention, Outcomes)
SPIDER (Sample, Phenomenon of interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type)
SPICE (Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation)
ICMO (Intervention, Context, Mechanism, Outcome)
To identify the framework which suits your research question(s) best, please refer to Selecting a framework.

Choosing databases

Most guidelines recommend you search at least three subject databases when conducting a systemic review. In addition, at least one citation tracking or multidisciplinary 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). The number of databases searched will depend on the scope of the review and the number of resources available within the team to complete the review. It is essential be transparent regarding the number and name of the databases searched. 
See below for prominent subject databases within Medicine, Nursing, Health and Psychology. A full list of databases can be found in the relevant Library Subject Guides.


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.

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

Recommended 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

Simapivapan, P., Boltong, A., & Hodge, A. (2016). To what extent is alcohol consumption associated with breast cancer recurrence and second primary breast cancer?: A systematic review. Cancer Treatment Reviews, 50, 155-167.

Systematic review protocol

Wollscheid, S., Fang, L., Nilsen, W., Smedslund, G., Steiro, A., Hammerstrøm, K.T. and Larun, L. (2014), PROTOCOL: Effect of early, brief computerized interventions on risky alcohol use and risky cannabis use among young people: Protocol for a systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 10(1), 1-38.


Surkalim, D. L., Luo, M., Eres, R., Gebel, K., van Buskirk, J., Bauman, A., & Ding, D. (2022). The prevalence of loneliness across 113 countries: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 376, e067068

Scoping review

Dol, J., Tutelman, P. R., Chambers, C. T., Barwick, M., Drake, E. K., Parker, J. A., Parker, R., Benchimol, E. I., George, R. B., & Witteman, H. O. (2019). Health researchers’ use of social media: Scoping review [Review]. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(11), e13687.

Scoping review protocol

Bour, C., Schmitz, S., Ahne, A., Perchoux, C., Dessenne, C., & Fagherazzi, G. (2021). Scoping review protocol on the use of social media for health research purposes. BMJ Open, 11(2), e040671. 

Scoping review

Wijn, S. R. W., Rovers, M. M., & Hannink, G. (2022). Confounding adjustment methods in longitudinal observational data with a time-varying treatment: A mapping review. BMJ Open, 12(3), e058977. 


Obaid, M., Douiri, A., Flach, C., Prasad, V., & Marshall, I. (2020). Can we prevent poststroke cognitive impairment? An umbrella review of risk factors and treatments. BMJ Open, 10(9), e037982.

Umbrella protocol

Assi, L., Rosman, L., Chamseddine, F., Ibrahim, P., Sabbagh, H., Congdon, N., Evans, J., Ramke, J., Kuper, H., Burton, M. J., Ehrlich, J. R., & Swenor, B. K. (2020). Eye health and quality of life: An umbrella review protocol. BMJ Open, 10(8), e037648.

Rapid review

Sasseville, M., LeBlanc, A., Boucher, M., Dugas, M., Mbemba, G., Tchuente, J., Chouinard, M.-C., Beaulieu, M., Beaudet, N., Skidmore, B., Cholette, P., Aspiros, C., Larouche, A., Chabot, G., & Gagnon, M.-P. (2021). Digital health interventions for the management of mental health in people with chronic diseases: a rapid review. BMJ open, 11(4), e044437. 

Qualitative evidence synthesis

Farrell, E., Hollmann, E., le Roux, C. W., Bustillo, M., Nadglowski, J., & McGillicuddy, D. (2021). The lived experience of patients with obesity: A systematic review and qualitative synthesis. Obesity Reviews, 22(12), e13334.

Protocol qualitative evidence synthesis

Fadahunsi, K. P., Akinlua, J. T., O’Connor, S., Wark, P. A., Gallagher, J., Carroll, C., Majeed, A., & O’Donoghue, J. (2019). Protocol for a systematic review and qualitative synthesis of information quality frameworks in eHealth. BMJ Open, 9(3), e024722. 

Mixed methods systematic review

Hodson, N., Majid, M., Vlaev, I., & Singh, S. P. (2022). Can incentives improve antipsychotic adherence in major mental illness? A mixed-methods systematic review. BMJ Open, 12(6), e059526.

Protocol for mixed methods systematic review

Piat, M., Sofouli, E., Sabetti, J., Lambrou, A., Chodos, H., Briand, C., Vachon, B., & Curran, J. (2017). Protocol for a mixed studies systematic review on the implementation of the recovery approach in adult mental health services. BMJ Open, 7(8), e017080.

Narrative review

Duncan, A. R., Jaini, P. A., & Hellman, C. M. (2021). Positive psychology and hope as lifestyle medicine modalities in the therapeutic encounter: A narrative review. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 15(1), 6-13. 

Filters and Hedges

Hedges or filters are pre-designed search strategies for finding particular research study designs or topics. Using a search filter or hedge can save you time. Some filters or hedges have been tested for validity but not all and it is always important for you to review and assess the appropriateness of particular filters to your research project. Below are some well-known sources of filters and hedges. This is  not a comprehensive list of all hedges and filter available, try an internet search if what you need is not listed at one of these sources.

Finding Grey Literature

Grey Literature refers to any  information resources created outside traditional or academic publishing processes. This material is produced by organisations or individuals who are not commercial publishers but do create information resources. For example but not limited to government reports, organisational documents and position statements, parliamentary hearings, commissions, green or white papers. Locating relevant grey literature can be difficult. This table will include search tools that may offer assistance with this task and will be expanded as new resources are located. Grey material is an important component of supplementary searching for Systematic and Scoping reviews. See CLUES for more strategies to locate grey literature.

Resource Link
CareSearch Grey Literature database: The CareSearch Grey Literature databases capture palliative care information and evidence that can be hard to find.

Recommended readings

Aromataris, E., & Munn, Z. (Eds.). (2020). JBI manual for evidence synthesis. JBI.

Higgins, J. P. T., Thomas, J., Chandler, J., Cumpston, M., Li, T., Page, M. J., & Welch, V. A. (Eds.). (2022). Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions version 6.3 (updated February 2022). Cochrane.   

Muka, T., Glisic, M., Milic, J., Verhoog, S., Bohlius, J., Bramer, W., Chowdhury, R., & Franco, O. H. (2020). A 24-step guide on how to design, conduct, and successfully publish a systematic review and meta-analysis in medical research. European Journal of Epidemiology, 35(1), 49-60.

Page, M. J., Moher, D., Bossuyt, P. M., Boutron, I., Hoffmann, T. C., Mulrow, C. D., Shamseer, L., Tetzlaff, J. M., Akl, E. A., Brennan, S. E., Chou, R., Glanville, J., Grimshaw, J. M., Hróbjartsson, A., Lalu, M. M., Li, T., Loder, E. W., Mayo-Wilson, E., McDonald, S., McGuinness, L. A., Stewart, L. A., Thomas, J., Tricco, A. C., Welch, V. A., Whiting, P., & McKenzie, J. E. (2021). PRISMA 2020 explanation and elaboration: Updated guidance and exemplars for reporting systematic reviews. BMJ, 372, n160.

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