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Public Health: Literature Reviews

CUNY School of Public Health

What is a Systematic Literature Review?

If you are doing a literature review as part of your capstone project, please see this document for guidance on format and structure.

What is a literature review?

There are different types of literature reviews, for an overview on the differences between them please see this page. This page's main focus is systematic literature reviews  -- please scroll down to find resources for doing scoping reviews.

At its most basic, a systematic review is a secondary study that summarizes research on a specific topic by means of explicit and rigorous methods. These are based on previously published works in the field and do not include new data or experiments. 

Systematic reviews use a formal process to identify, select, appraise, analyze, and summarize the findings.

Try starting out by formulating and defining a clear, specific research question. The PICO Framework (standing for Population/problem, Intervention, Comparison and Outcome) is a guideline for focusing and answering health-related questions, and a well-formed clinical question covers these areas: 

        PICO chart


Developing a Protocol

What is a literature review protocol? Essentially, it is a document prepared before a review is started that serves as a guide to carrying it out. It describes the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the review. The protocol should contain specific guidelines to identify and screen relevant articles for the review as well as outline the review methods for the entire process. 

Why make a protocol for your literature review? 

          The key elements of a protocol are:

                 1. Background/purpose

                 2. Objectives/review question

                 3. Methods

                          a. Selection criteria (such as: type of intervention, type of outcome, population of studies, types of studies,  types of publications, publication dates, language, and location)

                          b. Search Strategy

                          c. Data Collection

                          d. Displaying data

                          e. Analysis and synthesis


A good way to develop a protocol is to use PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses). PRISMA is a set of reporting standards for sharing your findings with the research community.

Use the PRISMA checklist and the PRISMA flow chart to help make sure your review is as thorough as possible.

See the full PRISMA statement here.

Below are some examples and templates for review protocols.

Protocol template from the World Health Organization

Protocol template from Cochrane 

Protocol guidelines from the Campbell Collaboration 

Search Strategy & Screening Tools

Free search strategy tools.

Free screening tools.

Scoping Reviews

A scoping review is a type of knowledge synthesis that uses a systematic and iterative approach to identify and synthesize an existing or emerging body of literature on a given topic. While there are several reasons for conducting a scoping review, the main reasons are to map the extent, range, and nature of the literature, as well as to determine possible gaps in the literature on a topic. Scoping reviews are not limited to peer-reviewed literature.

Mak S, Thomas A. Steps for Conducting a Scoping Review. J Grad Med Educ. 2022;14(5):565-567. doi:10.4300/JGME-D-22-00621.1

Peters, M.D.J., Marnie, C., Colquhoun, H. et al. Scoping reviews: reinforcing and advancing the methodology and application. Syst Rev 10, 263 (2021).

Tricco AC, Lillie E, Zarin W, et al. PRISMA Extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR): Checklist and Explanation. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2018;169(7):467-473. doi:10.7326/M18-0850