About Systematic Reviews

How to Choose a Topic
for a Systematic Review

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The topic of your systematic review forms the foundation of your research and drives its entire methodology. It must be focused, specific, answerable, and something that hasn’t been previously (or is currently being) reviewed. To choose a fitting topic for a systematic review, start with a draft research question then branch out from there. With sufficient awareness regarding the current body of evidence—or the lack of such evidence (knowledge gaps)—you should be able to narrow or broaden your topic. Topic selection can be performed with the help of interviews with specialists in the research area, studying relevant literature references in the area. It is advisable to have a selected group of researchers conduct a brainstorming session to construct the main question.

What Is A Systematic Review?

Before you proceed with choosing a topic, let’s start with the basics of what is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a research-intensive study of studies, commonly used in evidence-based medicine and academia, though it’s valuable in other fields, as well. It aims to answer a specific research question using a comprehensive strategy that selects, evaluates and interprets published and unpublished studies relevant to the topic. Once all the qualified research is assessed, the results are presented as a balanced summary of findings to recommend effective practices, quantify uncertainty, and determine gaps in existing knowledge.

It is a rigorous process, prompting a lot of researchers to ask, “How long does it take to do a systematic review?”. The answer varies depending on several factors including the topic, the research method, and the availability of related studies. That said, from learning how to write a systematic review introduction to potentially getting the work published, it generally takes between six to eighteen months.

What Makes A Good Systematic Review Topic?

A good systematic review topic must be:


It’s pointless to undertake months of research to study a question that’s been previously answered, unless, of course, there are updates that make previous studies irrelevant. Updates should justify the conduction of a fresh systematic review considering that they are laborious and resource-intensive. Do a quick literature review, perform qualitative research (e.g. interviews), and check your sources to ensure that your topic is new.


Your topic should not be too broad or else the systematic review will be impossible to implement due to the sheer amount of related studies that you’ll have to assess. Keep it focused and construct it in a way that paves a more straightforward path towards finding its answer.


A systematic review topic should be specific in that it leaves no room for misinterpretation or vagueness. That said, be careful not to make it too narrow; you might find yourself struggling to find relevant data if you do so.


The goal of a systematic review is to answer a research question. If your topic can’t be answered by the review process, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

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The PICO Framework

One way to qualify a good systematic review topic is to use the PICO approach to formulate it. This framework is used by evidence-based practitioners to form their research questions in a way that facilitates the review. PICO stands for:

Patient, Problem, or Population

Consider the patient or the population that your topic deals with; think of their demographics, social state, economic status, etc. If it doesn’t deal with certain individuals per se, then ask yourself: what is the type of problem my research will address?


Think about what type of intervention is being considered, such as medication, therapy, educational technique, as well the issues at risk or improvement.

Comparison, Or Control

Though not all kinds of research call for it, it’s helpful to consider if there’s any comparison variable to be considered versus the intervention. This could be another sort of treatment or none at all.


Here is where your inferences come to play. The outcome deals with the desired effect from the answer of the review, as well as any possible side effects or unwanted results. The outcome should be measurable with statistically significant findings.

How To Choose A Systematic Review Topic

The best way to choose a systematic review topic is to start with a draft research question. Do a preliminary check through a quick review of existing literature and other qualitative research to ensure that it hasn’t been done before. Then, fine-tune your topic by consulting with librarians and industry experts, focusing it into an answerable question, and formulating it through the PICO framework.

Once you’ve chosen a topic for your systematic review, you can now employ literature review software such as DistillerSR to simplify your methods, allowing you to produce research faster and more accurately to get your answers.

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