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Systematic Review: 2. Structure

Recommendations for writing

To make your review writing process easier, and to improve your final review, consider the following points:

Writing early and multiple drafts

It is always useful to begin drafting your review early in the process. Prewriting can help clarify your thinking and avoid potential writer’s block. Even a very messy draft can result in an excellent systematic review.

Structure

Unlike the traditional literature review, which allows you to organise it to best suit your argument, the sections of a systematic review reflect the stages of your protocol. It is therefore important to be mindful of the specific guidelines for structuring your review and instructions to authors provided by journals and organisations where you plan to submit your work.  

Reporting guidelines, like those listed here, can help you identify the structure you need to follow and what you need to include in each section of your review. One standard approach is based on the PRISMA reporting guidelines. These guidelines outline what information is required in each section of the review.

Applying critical thinking

While following the protocol and analysing the data is important, it is equally important to present the findings in a way that reflects your critical engagement with the research question and the implications of your findings. Feedback from editors indicates that a common challenge when writing systematic reviews is that authors often stop at summary. Because so much is invested in developing a search strategy, and selecting and screening results, sometimes researchers assume that they only need to report what they found (Gregory & Deniss, 2018, p.895). As a result, "many papers are rejected because the analyses and resultant discussions devolve into vote-counting exercises that see a rehashing of included studies and their characteristics (e.g. number of studies by country or language)" (Horsley, 2019, p.56). The value in a systematic review is the way in which it draws out the common themes, critically reflect on and interprets the findings, and demonstrates how these findings fit into the current understanding of the field (Horsley, 2019, p. 56). You therefore need to include more analysis than summary.

Summary vs. analysis

To make the systematic review useful for your readers, keep in mind the difference between summary and analysis when you write about your research findings. 

  • To summarise is to simply list the main points of a document or finding, or to describe the steps in your reviewing process. A summary of literature reflects the point of view of the authors whose studies you are examining and a summary of your method reflects the steps you have taken in completing the systematic search.
  • To analyse is to bring out the most significant concepts, findings and ideas and explain how different they are connected. An analysis reflects your own ability to identify major points and connections, and expresses your own point of view.

 

   Accessibility document - Summary vs. Analysis

Further resources

 

Developing an argument: telling a story with your data

To make a systematic review easier to follow, consider how your data tells a story. Your review will not automatically be published simply because it is systematic. It also needs “to be the right kind of reviews submitted at the right time and on the right topic” (Gregory & Deniss, 2018, p.894). This means that you will need to carefully select your journal, and write your review so that you highlight the innovation and information most relevant for that publication.

Most importantly, you need to ensure that you clearly articulate in your systematic review how it provides meaningful and original advancement of the field (Gregory & Deniss, 2018; Horsley, 2019). One way to ensure the relevance of your systematic review is to ensure you are not replicating someone else's work. You can register your protocol and check for new reviews-in-progress, to avoid duplicating efforts.

To clarify the contribution of your systematic review, make sure that your writing answers these questions:

  • What is the research problem? What makes it significant?
  • What is the current gap in our understanding of this problem? Does this review help address or highlight this gap?
  • Why do a systematic review now? What will a systematic review do that other genres cannot do?

This Reporting and discussing your findings tutorial will guide you further.