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Systematic reviews: finding and managing the evidence

This guide gives an overview of how to plan, execute and organize literature searches to support systematic reviews and other projects and research requiring in-depth searches.

Managing results

Most databases will enable you to output your results via email or export as an RIS file that can be used in bibliographic software such as Refworks (available to University staff and students) or Endnote (subscription required) and Mendeley (free online/download)

The process of managing your references is outlined below:

  1. Merge  and de-duplicate search results using bibliographic software (make a copy or keep record of how many duplicates found)
  2. Examine titles and abstracts and apply inclusion/exclusion criteria. This process should be carried out by two members of the team to minimize bias
  3. Best practice is to retain evidence of what articles have been excluded and why, in line with your protocol
  4. Retrieve full text of potentially relevant articles
  5. Link together multiple reports
  6. Document the search process and how results have been dealt with for reporting

    See below for more information on some of these processes.

Reference management software

At St George's we support RefWorks reference management software, available for our students, teaching staff and researchers. Visit our Refworks and reference management libguide for further guidance.

Other reference management software available includes Endnote (Subscription-based), Zotero or Mendeley (Freely available).  

Once you have decided which reference management tool to use, you can export your references into it and integrate with Word when writing your manuscripts.

For help and advice on selecting the right reference management software for your needs, contact your liaison librarian.

Alternatively try our help page which links to external sources of information on reference management.



Documenting search process

Documenting the search forms a vital part of the review process.  Your searches should be able to be evaluated and reproduced in the future.

Ideally you need to record:

  • Databases and platforms  searched eg Ovid or HDAS
  • Dates covered and when search was carried out
  • Full  detailed search strategies. You can include search strategies when you download results for copying and pasting
  • Number of articles retrieved
  • Details of other sources searched and search strategies, for example conference proceedings, Google Scholar
  • Your selection criteria and  a note of how many articles excluded

A study flow diagrams can be used to "depict the flow of information through the different phases of a systematic review. It maps out the number of records identified, included and excluded, and the reasons for exclusions." PRISMA, (2019. )See the PRISMA website to download their templates for Flow Diagrams as shown below:



Yang, Bo; Wang, Feng-Lei; Ren, Xiao-Li; Li, Duo (2014): PRISMA Flow Diagram for included prospective cohort and case-control studies. Figure_1.tif. PLOS ONE. 10.1371/journal.pone.0110574.g001.


Finding the full text

The library’s databases will offer links to articles where subscriptions exist via NHS or university collections. Access is controlled via NHS OpenAthens or Shibboleth accounts. Due to research funder mandates or publishers’ policies, there are an increasing number of open access articles available for free over the web.

The following journal finding tools and services can also help track down articles: