Systematic literature review (SLR) guidance

N.B. The SLR is only undertaken by trainees in the 2017 cohort and earlier

The following guidelines have been prepared to help you with the systematic literature review. The marking guidance for this assignment is also available in a separate document.

What is a Systematic Literature Review?

  • A systematic literature review provides a coherent, persuasive and updated synthesis of studies in a particular area of scientific inquiry. A critical consideration of studies is an integral part of the reviewing process. This would include an appropriate critique of methodological issues relating to the work reviewed, although these are discussed mainly with regard to the area of inquiry in general. Ultimately, systematic literature reviews should lead to new levels of understanding, conclusions and recommendations in the chosen area.
  • For this assignment trainees must choose a topic area and research questions which are of direct relevance to clinical psychology.
  • There are two broad types of review which are permitted for the first year systematic literature review assignment: a quantitative systematic review, or a metasynthesis of qualitative studies.

Quantitative systematic reviews

These provide a rigorous method of reviewing quantitative studies. They:

  • focus on a body of quantitative literature
  • are normally used to answer a very tightly-focused question (e.g. 'what' questions)
  • are explicit about the way in which relevant studies are identified for inclusion in the review
  • take an explicit approach to the analysis and synthesis of the reviewed work underpinned by indicators of quality commensurate with a quantitative or positivistic paradigm
  • emphasise methodological aspects across the reviewed studies, although to varying degrees

Examples of past trainee topics include:

  • The relationship between attachment and eating disorders: A systematic review
  • Psychological effects of paediatric burn injury on parents: A systematic review
  • A systematic review of the efficacy and effectiveness of mindfulness - based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

Guidance and discussion on undertaking quantitative systematic reviews is provided in:

  • Aveyard, H. (2010). Doing a Literature Review in Health and Social Care. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Chalmers, I., & Altman, D.G. (1995). Systematic Reviews. London: BMJ Publishing Group.
  • Fink, A. (2010). Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper (3rd edn). London: Sage.
  • Greenhalgh, T. (2010). How To Read A Paper: The Basics of Evidence Based Medicine (4th edn.). Oxford: Blackwell/BMJ Books.
  • Jadad, A., & Enkin, M. (2007). Randomised Controlled Trials: Questions, Answers and Musings (2nd edn). Oxford: Blackwell/BMJ Books.

  • Mawson, A., Cohen, K., & Berry, K. (2010). Reviewing evidence for the cognitive model of auditory hallucinations: The relationship between cognitive voice appraisals and distress during psychosis. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 248-258.
  • McKenzie, L.H., Simpson, J., & Stewart, M. (2010). A systematic review of pre-operative predictors of post-operative depression and anxiety in individuals who have undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 15, 74-93.
  • Osborne, H., Simpson, J., & Stokes, G. (2010). The relationship between pre-morbid personality and challenging behaviour in people with dementia: A systematic review. Aging & Mental Health, 14, 503-515.
  • Smith, A.E.M., Msetfi, R.M., & Golding, L. (2010). Client self rated adult attachment patterns and the therapeutic alliance: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 326-337.

Metasyntheses of qualitative studies

These are also carried out in a rigorous, systematic manner. They:

  • have a research question which is compatible with an interpretative approach (e.g. 'how' or 'why' questions)
  • are explicit about how the synthesis was conducted
  • justify methodological choices and analytical procedures within a qualitative or interpretative paradigm
  • involve producing novel and integrative interpretations of a body of qualitative literature (or even re-interpretation of the themes presented in selected studies) than is available in any single study.

Examples of past topics include:

  • The impact of childhood chronic illness on the psycho-social wellbeing of fathers: A meta-synthesis
  • Meta-synthesis of clients' experience of narrative therapy: Practical implications
  • A qualitative metasynthesis on the effects of using sign language interpreters in therapy

Guidance and discussion on undertaking metasyntheses of qualitative studies is provided in:

  • Dixon-Woods, M., Agarwal, S., Jones, D.R., Young, B., & Sutton, A.J. (2005). Synthesising qualitative and quantitative evidence: a review of methods. Journal of Health Services Research and Policy, 10, 45-53.
  • Downe, S. (2008). Metasynthesis: a guide to knitting smoke. Evidence Based Midwifery, 6, 4-8.
  • Evans, D. (2002). Systematic reviews of interpretive research: Interpretive data synthesis of processed data. Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 20, 22-26.
  • Fingeld, D.L. (2003). Metasynthesis: The state of the art - so far. Qualitative Health Research, 13, 893-904.
  • Noblit, G.W., & Hare, R.D. (1988). Meta-Ethnography: Synthesizing qualitative studies. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Sandelowski, M., Docherty, S., & Emden, C. (1997). Qualitative metasynthsis: Issues and techniques. Research in Nursing and Health. 20, 365-371.
  • Sandelowski, M., & Barroso, J. (2002). Finding the findings in qualitative studies. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 34, 213-219.
  • Thorne, S., Jensen, L., Kearney, M.H., Noblit, G., & Sandelowski, M. (2004). Qualitative metasynthesis: Reflections on methodological orientation and ideological agenda. Qualitative Health Research, 14, 1342-1365.

Recent examples of metasyntheses include:

  • Denieffe, S., & Gooney, M. (2011). A meta-synthesis of women's symptoms experience and breast cancer. European Journal of Cancer Care, 20, 424-435.
  • Gomersall, T., Madill, A., & Summers, L.K.M. (2011). A metasynthesis of the self-management of type 2 diabetes. Qualitative Health Research, 21, 853-871.
  • Lindahl, M., & Lindblad,B. (2011). Family members' experiences of everyday life when a child is dependent on a ventilator: A metasynthesis study. Journal of Family Nursing, 17, 241-269.
  • Reid, B., Sinclair, M., Barr, O., Dobbs, F., & Crealey, G. (2009). A meta-synthesis of pregnant women's decision-making processes with regard to antenatal screening for Down syndrome. Social Science & Medicine, 69, 1561-1573.

General Procedure

Trainees are required to submit their systematic literature review early in their second year of study.

The systematic literature review can address any area that is of relevance to clinical psychology (theory or practice); i.e., it is NOT restricted to areas covered in the academic or placement programme undertaken in the first year of the doctorate.

First year trainees are required to submit a proposal for their systematic literature review. The proposal should contain: (1) An appropriate title; (2) a clear specification of the topic of the proposed review; (3) a brief account of previous reviews in the area; (4) an indication of the viability of the review (an indication of the studies to be included in the review). The link to the form on which the proposal is submitted can be found at the bottom of this page. Trainees should submit their draft proposal via email to their research tutor, who will review it and give them feedback if necessary. Once an agreed proposal has been completed, this will be sent to the SLR assignment co-coordinator who will review the proposal and submit the title to the exam board for approval.

Research tutors will provide one draft read of the assignment in two parts (introduction & method; results and discussion).

General Style and Presentation

The systematic literature review should be written in a style and format consistent with the notes to authors of a chosen peer reviewed journal. These guidelines should be attached to the systematic literature review as an appendix.

It should not exceed 6,000 words (including references cited within the text but excluding the abstract, reference list and any figures/tables and/or appendices). Quotes from the papers reviewed are included in the word count. An accurate word count should be provided on the title page of the review. In addition, trainees should provide a 500 word justification for the chosen peer reviewed journal. This should make it clear why the chosen journal is appropriate and appear immediately after the reference section in the review.

Normally, the review will include a title page; an abstract; an introduction to the area; a description of the search process; a synthesis of the reviewed studies; discussion and conclusions; and a reference list. Any tables should be brief, intelligible, and placed within the text.

The final length, structure and placement of the above components are dependent on the chosen journal. Trainees are advised to consider previous published reviews within their chosen journal and use them as guidelines.

The following descriptions should be regarded as general guidelines for systematic literature review components.

A title page will include the review's title, the trainee's details (number, not name) and the title of the peer reviewed journal for which the review is intended (see the 'guidance on assignment submission' page for a link to the title page template and general guidance on assignment submission).

An abstract usually provides a clear and concise summary of the aim, body and conclusions of the review. Word limit is dependent on the chosen journal.

A general introduction to the area usually aims to establish the scientific and clinical significance of the systematic literature review, present a brief description of the area and introduces key concepts. This general introduction also discusses the results and implications of previous or related reviews, or contemporary psychological theories pertinent to the area of study. The introduction should aim to address two key issues: 1) why the review is necessary and 2) why the proposed review type is the most appropriate for the review question.

A description of the search process normally includes details such as date of search, databases searched, terms used for search, initial number of studies retrieved, inclusions and exclusion criteria, and the process leading to the final number of studies to review.

The main body of the review: For a more quantitative systematic review there could well be specific sections comparing methods, samples and a synthesised section on different studies' results. For a metasynthesis the body of the review will tend to comprise the overarching themes identified through the synthesis of literature.

Discussion and conclusions usually include a clear and coherent summary of the review, consider the relevant scientific, professional and clinical implications of the review and include future recommendations for the chosen area, which derive from the reviewed studies.

A reference list should be complete and comprehensive (i.e., all papers cited being appropriately referenced, no references included that are not cited in the body of the review).

Tables may be included within the text. However, these tables should be concise, intelligible and focused. They should adhere to the chosen peer reviewed journal's guidelines. However, unlike most authors' guidelines, tables which are meant to be a part of the text or analysis (rather than appendices) should be placed within the text and not in separate pages at the back of the review.