Conducting systematic reviews of social work literature is an essential research skill that social workers should develop. While not all social workers are active in conducting research, the ability to conduct a systematic review is a useful skill for anyone seeking to establish firm knowledge of a particular subject, intervention, or population relevant to their practice. These reviews can and should be tailored to a well-defined research question that will enhance one’s social work knowledge and skills.
The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in healthcare and health policy states in their handbook that 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.”
There are many handbooks and resources that provide fine grain details about the specifics of conducting systematic reviews, however, these resources can seem overwhelming or highly technical for the novice social work researcher. This guide provides the basic steps that social work researchers should follow in order to ensure they are conducting literature reviews according to established standards of systematicity.
Step 1: Define the research question or problem.
A review should be motivated by a research question or problem. Perhaps you are interested in learning about the success and limitations of a particular intervention or therapeutic approach with a specific population. This interests would lead to the formulation of your research question.
For example, imagine you are a social work practitioner working with older adults, and you recently heard that some colleagues have found it worthwhile to utilize music in the therapeutic setting with this population. You are interested in learning more about this type of intervention in order to determine how best to incorporate it in your own work. In this case, your research question might be formulated as: How has music been effectively utilized in therapy with older adults? Or, what are the therapeutic benefits of utilizing music with older adults?
Step 2: Generate keywords.
Now that you have a research question, you will think of keywords and configurations of keywords that will help you find the specific information you seek.
Since the intervention you are are interested in utilizes music, “music” will be one keyword.You are also interested in how music is used specifically with older adult populations, so “older adults,” will be another key word. You should also include other terms that are similar or applicable to older adults, such as “elderly,” “the aged,” and “gerontology” to ensure you are casting a wide enough net to capture any literature that is discussing the older adult population.Finally, you are interested in music utilized in therapy, as opposed to education or programming, so you should include “therapy” as another keyword.
Because you want to find articles that include these words combined together, you will use OR and AND, as well as quotation marks, to ensure the correct configurations of search terms. To incorporate older adults, music, and therapy, with each of the variations of keywords for older adults, your search for articles will be configured as:
“Music” AND “therapy” AND “older adults” OR “the aged” OR “gerontology”
This configuration of keywords should be documented, to ensure that the methods you follow are explicit.
Step 3: Identify the databases that you will search.
There are many academic databases available for a multitude of disciplines, but since you are conducting a systematic review of the literature within the field of social work, you should search databases most relevant to social workers. Certain databases are specific to the field of social work and will include academic journals within the social work discipline as well as related disciplines like counseling, behavioral and mental health, and social services more broadly. These databases include: PsychInfo, Social Services Abstracts, Social Work Abstracts, SocIndex, Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts, and Family Studies Abstracts, amongst others.
It is best to search several databases, as the journals they index will vary, and therefore, articles that come up in your search will differ between databases.
Again, to ensure that your methods are explicit, you should document the databases you plan to use.
Step 4: De-limit the search.
Before conducting the search, you’ll need to clearly identify your “inclusion criteria” for articles – that is, what explicit methods will you utilize to determine whether or not to include an article in your review?
First, you might want to identify a specific date range – perhaps you are only interested in articles written in the last 10 years so that information is current. Generally, you will want to search only for peer-reviewed articles, so that you are sure of their academic rigor through the peer-review process. Additionally, you may want to de-limit the search to only include articles in English and other languages you speak. You might also consider limiting the review to articles discussing older adults in specific geographic regions.
You might also want to eliminate articles that aren’t substantively related to the research question. might come up in our search, but aren’t relevant to our research question. For example, articles that discuss the use of music in physical therapy instead of mental health or behavioral therapy might not be relevant to your search. The specific inclusion criteria should be stated from the beginning, so that you have explicit guidelines to follow as you conduct the search and determine which articles to include.
Step 5: Conduct the search.
Now, you will enter in the configuration of search terms into the databases you selected. You should make note of the total number of articles that each search generates. Then, begin reviewing each of the articles your searches return according to the inclusion criteria. Weed out all articles that do not fit within your inclusion criteria and make note of the total number of articles that will be included in the review.
Step 6: Read and annotate each article.
Once the articles that meet inclusion criteria from each database have been identified, you will read each one and write up a thorough annotation. You’ll want to include the article citation, the sample, geographic region, methods, and results, as well as any other information pertinent to your research question. You should be able to write a brief summary of each article, as well as analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
If you are writing up your systematic review for a report or publication, you will want to synthesize and critique the articles, drawing connections between them and pointing out flaws and limitations. You should aim to arrive at a conclusion to your research question based on what you’ve read.
Step 7: Write up your methods.
Finally, you should maintain the transparency of your systematic review by writing out your methods – ensuring you make these explicit. This information includes everything previously documented: the research question, the keywords and configuration of keywords, the databases searched, the inclusion criteria specified, the number of articles generated by the initial search, and the number of articles ultimately included in your review.
One of the best ways to learn how to conduct a systematic literature review is to do one! Practice utilizing these steps, and you will hone your research abilities as you go. For further guidance and specifics on conducting systematic literature reviews, refer to the Cochrane handbook.