Answered By: Anna Stebbing
Last Updated: Jun 29, 2022     Views: 28

‘Systematic’ describes the review’s methods. It means that they are transparent, reproducible and defined before the search gets underway. That’s important because it helps to minimise the bias that would result from cherry-picking studies in a non-systematic way. 

Literature reviews don’t usually apply the same rigour in their methods. That’s because, unlike systematic reviews, they don’t aim to produce an answer to a clinical question. Literature reviews can provide context or background information for a new piece of research. They can also stand alone as a general guide to what is already known about a particular topic. 

Summary adapted from: Mellor, L. (2022) ‘The difference between a systematic review and a literature review’,, no date. Available at: (Accessed: 23 May 2022).

Your supervisor may ask you to do a systematic review, when what they actually want you to do is a systematic review of the literature. There are a few key differences:

Systematic review Systematic literature review
Brings together the results of studies to answer a specific question Provides a subjective summary of the literature on a topic
Extensive search covering published and grey literature Thorough search of published literature
Involves a detailed protocol often developed using the PICO framework Includes a detailed search strategy
Usually involves three or more people to eliminate bias Can be produced by a single person, so open to bias
Can take months or years to produce Weeks or months to produce


  • A detailed protocol
  • Systematic search strategy
  • Review of results against eligibility criteria
  • Evaluation of studies
  • Interpretation and presentation of results
  • Extensive reference list
  • Detailed appendices showing search strategies


  • Introduction
  • Methods - search strategy
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Long reference list

Summary adapted from: Kysh, L. (2013) ‘What's in a name? The difference between a systematic review and a literature review and why it matters’, , 8 August. Available at: 

(Accessed: 23 May 2022).

Your Liaison Librarian can also provide further help and advice.

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