What is a systematic review? What are they good for?

This is a question often posed by our science and social science students, so I like to refer to Cochrane Library for definitions:

“A systematic review is a high-level overview of primary research on a particular research question that tries to identify, select, synthesize and appraise all high quality research evidence relevant to that question in order to answer it” (Cochrane, 2014)

Another definition they give is:

“A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making” (Cochrane, 2014).

Systematic reviews are also a type of journal article, published alongside primary research articles in scholarly journals.


How do you know if a journal article is a systematic review?

Systematic reviews will identify themselves  as such in the abstract, introduction, and/or the methods (sometimes even in the title). For example, you could find language like “the purpose of this systematic review…”  like the example below

Systematic Review Abstract

Systematic reviews will also often include a methods section: the authors will list what databases they searched, what terms or keywords they used, the kinds of articles they included and excluded, etc. I’ve included an example below from the open-access Journal of Neurosciences in Renal Practice:

Systematic Review - Methods

Reviews that are not systematic don’t have these distinguishing features. If you’re not sure what kind of article something is, make sure to ask a librarian or your professor.


When would you want to use a systematic review?

Even though systematic reviews are secondary sources they are often considered more credible than regular literature reviews: this is because the authors have systematically found every article that falls into their research parameters. In a regular literature review, we can’t be sure if the authors have missed important research.

Systematic reviews are a great way to start off your research: if you’re able to find one on your exact topic, you can thank your lucky stars! We recommend students use the reference lists from systematic reviews to help identify primary research on their topics. Rather than digging through databases to get an overview on your topic, systematic reviews provide a starting list of primary research articles that you can then go find. Then you can just fill in the gaps!

That said, it’s important to pay attention to the methods of the review: what dates did they examine? Have more studies been published since the systematic review was written? Did they exclude any studies that you should probably consider? Reading a systematic review carefully will help you with determining what research you need to do next.


When should you not use a systematic review?

Systematic reviews are still secondary sources: the authors are not contributing new information or understanding to the field, but rather summarizing and combining the results of others’ research. Even though the authors take efforts to eliminate bias, there is no guarantee they have analyzed the studies correctly or from your perspective on the topic (they’re still humans, after all). Make sure to read them with a critical eye. If your professor has asked you to use primary research only, make sure to ask before using a systematic review in your reference list.

How do I determine if a source is ‘primary’?

Thanks to our weekend librarian Josh Klar for this helpful post! – HC

In science, a primary source article reports on an empirical research study conducted by the authors of the article. Secondary sources, usually reviews, are often summarizing research that was done by other people.

A few good ways to identify a primary source article include looking for the following in the abstract or in the body of the article:

  • A reference to the “study” that was conducted by the authors:Abstract
  • A reference to the “research method” used to conduct the study (Sometimes this will not be discussed in the abstract and will be found in the article under “Method” or “Methodology”):Methods
    Secondary sources in science – again, usually reviews – sometimes include methods, too, so make sure to read this section carefully. Primary articles will refer to the kind of study that was conducted: clinical trial, randomized controlled trial, observational study, etc.
  • Primary articles reference the “results” discovered through the study, too – See Example 1 above again. This is where the authors list their contribution to the overall understanding of this topic in the literature.


In social sciences, humanities or the arts, sometimes it can be a bit trickier to determine if material is a primary source. In these disciplines, a primary source is any material that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event, and typically the material was written or created during the time of study or observation. Think of a photograph or a page from a diary. These are records of a moment in time and are examples of primary sources. Other examples could be: Memoirs, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, ethnographies or research data from a study. These primary sources all serve as raw material to interpret social, cultural, or historical events.

And just remember… any source that arrives at conclusions based on research from other studies are NOT primary sources. A few examples would include

  • Literature reviews
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Many textbooks


My prof suggested I search for articles in a specific journal: what does that mean?

Note: this post is jargon-heavy and aimed at students who have a little bit of research experience. Make sure to check out our other posts on journals and finding articles if you’re not sure what some of the terminology means. HC.

When you get to know a topic or a discipline, the same journal titles will keep popping up. You may notice this if you do a few research assignments on the same topic, or once you reach fourth year and have studied the same discipline for awhile. For experts in the field, like your professors, they’ll know which journal titles are likely to cover different topics within your discipline. This is often why they’ll suggest to you “look in Leadership Quarterly” or “check the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,” because they know the kinds of titles each journal will publish.

So: knowing how to access articles just from a specific journal title can be an important skill. Luckily the steps aren’t all that different from searching a database, you just need to know where to start. Off campus users: make sure to log in before you start!

  1. Start at the catalogue. There are lots of other ways to start, but this way will always connect you.
  2. Search by Journal Title. So, type in “leadership quarterly” or whatever journal you’re searching. Make sure to click the “Journal Title” radio button on the catalogue before hitting Search.
  3. CaptureLook for the “Click here for online access links.” There may be more than one, depending whether we pay for an online subscription for this journal from multiple places. Choose the link you think is most suitable for your needs. A warning, though: the date ranges next to the links aren’t always accurate!Capture 2
  4. Search for articles! Make sure the option “Limit Search to this Journal” or “Only this Journal” is checked.Capture 3Alternatively, you can browse by date or issue to see what’s been published recently. The best part: you don’t have to go searching for full-text articles!

What is a DOI?

DOI is an acronym for “digital object identifier”, meaning a “digital identifier of an object” rather than an “identifier of a digital object”.

The DOI system is designed to work over the Internet. A DOI name is permanently assigned to an object (e.g. a journal article) to provide a persistent link to current information about that item, including where the object (or information about it) can be found on the Internet. While information about an object can change over time, its DOI name will not change.

For more information about DOI’s, visit the DOI website: http://www.doi.org/.

We’re sometimes asked: are DOI’s permanent or can they be changed? (e.g. when a journal is made available in pre-publication and then gets published in a journal).  The IDF does not have any specific rules on this (we could only find reference that “Individual Registering Agencies (RAs) adopt appropriate rules for their community and application”). In general, if substantial changes are made to a document or it is necessary to identify both the original and the changed material, a new DOI is assigned.  It’s safe to assume, then, that *most* of the time DOI’s will stay the same throughout the life of a document

What is Summon?

Summon is Western Libraries main search product, and the default search box on the Beryl Ivey Library homepage.  It was introduced to allow students to find all different kinds of resources (i.e. journal articles and books together) in one quick, easy-to-use search, which the Shared Catalogue and searching databases do not.  Traditional database searching, for when you’re looking for journal articles, can also be irritating as they do not exclusively list articles that we have a subscription to.

When you search Summon you are looking at Western’s Shared Library Catalogue content in combination with roughly 90% of our online, full-text journal articles.   Depending on what topic you’re searching, there are a few “citation only” journal articles too, meaning that an abstract might be displayed in Summon, but the full-text article will not be linked there.

Here are my pros and cons for using Summon:


  • Easy to use:  if you’ve done any online shopping, Summon’s functioning will seem familiar.  It’s easy to limit your search results (i.e. by format, by library, by date) and to save your favourite articles.
  • Interdisciplinary: almost every program can use Summon as their first step in the research process.  For Brescia’s interdisciplinary programs like Foods and Nutrition, Family Studies, or Community Development, this can save you a lot of time and guesswork in choosing a database.
  • Citation formatting: once you’ve sent items to your “saved” folder you can view them in a variety of popular citation styles, including APA, MLA and Uniform Requirements.
  • It’s easy to find full-text journal articles: many times professors will give you a citation of a journal article to read for class.  It’s much easier to find these readings, as you can type in the name of the article into Summon and often find it on the first try.
  • Full-text articles: while there are some limitations to Summon’s functioning, it is easier to find full-text journal articles over traditional databases.  Usually.


  • Missing content: case-law and some business publications are not included in Summon.  This would affect our Criminal Psychology students at Brescia, as well as our MOS students.  Print journal articles are also not included.  So, for almost every student doing a research project, it’s still important to rely on databases to search for journal articles, or else you will likely miss important research.
  • SFX window: the Get it @ Western or SFX window links you between Summon and the full-text of the article – most of the time.  Many students (and myself) have expressed their frustration with this window, as it doesn’t seem to make much sense and often doesn’t work.  There are ways around this issue, which the library can help you with, but it still can be annoying.
  • Too much information? Results not appropriate for your subject?: because Summon is searching every discipline, our online journal articles, and the catalogue, it’s possible that you can get too many results in your search, like when you’re searching Google.  Again, this means that it’s often necessary to use a database when you’re searching for journal articles, as it will narrow your search specifically to your discipline.

There is a lot more I can say about Summon, but the question I was asked was “what is it.”   Overall, I really like this product, you just have to be aware of its limitations.

If a journal is available in print and online, does it count as a web resource for my assignment?

This question came up when a professor assigned a limitation on the number of electronic or web-based resources her students could use in their bibliography. It’s referring to the fact that many journals are both printed and made available via the web.  Often the two versions look identical, as the online version is a scanned PDF of the print journal.

My blanket answer is: ask your prof.  They may have specific reasons for assigning you resource limitations – usually because they want you to learn something new.  One of Brescia’s Religious Studies professors, for example, wants students to explore print journals specifically for an assignment, so finding the same journal online would be beyond the point.

In general, though, professors want you to use journal articles for your assignments, because they’re credible and academic.  Usually profs will place a limitation on the number of websites they want you to use, because these resources are less reliable.

Glance over your assignment instructions again and if you still aren’t sure, a quick email to your professor will give you an answer.

Does Western subscribe to this journal?

The best way to find your answer is to head straight to the Shared Library Catalogue.  Change the search option to “Journal Title” and type in the exact name of the journal (including all the “ands” and “the’s”, etc).   This may even be necessary if you’ve found a journal article using Summon.

If your journal appears in the results list, or if the library record opens, then you know Western or the affiliates subscribes to  the journal currently, or has subscribed to the journal in the past.

If the journal doesn’t appear in the list, you’re sure you’ve typed it in correctly, and you get a screen like the one below, we do not have a subscription.

You’re not stuck at this point, though.  See the blog post on interlibrary loan, or ask a library staff member for more help!