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Finding qualitative research: Qualitative systematic reviews

Searching for qualitative systematic reviews

To develop a search strategy for a qualitative systematic review:

Checking existing reviews /protocols

Checklist by Backdoor Survivor

It is always necessary to check whether a systematic review answering your question has already been conducted or is currently being undertaken.Checking existing reviews/protocols ensures that you are not repeating someone else's work. This may help you in choosing or refining a review topic. Look for existing systematic reviews/protocols in:


STARLITE refers to the standards for reporting literature searches (Sampling strategy, Type of study, Approaches, Range of years, Limits, Inclusion and exclusions, Terms used, Electronic sources)

Sampling strategy

  • Comprehensive: attempts to identify all relevant studies; 
  • Selective: attempts to identify all relevant studies but only within specified limit; 
  • Purposive: samples from specific disciplines, years, journals

Type of studies

  • Fully reported: describes actual study types [e.g., grounded theory] or designs to be included; 
  • Partially reported: uses an ‘‘umbrella’’ category such as ‘‘qualitative studies’’ without defining what this means

Approaches (Approaches other than electronic subject searches e.g. hand-searching, citation snowballing)

Range of years

  • Fully reported: includes start and end dates with justification for time period chosen; 
  • Partially reported: includes start and end dates but only determined available coverage of databases

Limits (Functional limits that are applied for logistic reasons but do not alter the topic conceptually (e.g., human, English etc.)

Inclusion and exclusions (Conceptual limitations that mediate the scope of the topic area such as geographical location, setting, or a specific focus of study)

Terms used

  • Fully present: example of a sample search strategy from one or more of the main database; 
  • Partially present: reports terminology used but without evidence of search syntax and operators

Electronic sources (Reports databases used and, optimally, search platforms and vendors to assist in replication)

Booth A. ‘‘Brimful of STARLITE’’: toward standards for reporting literature searches. J Med Libr Assoc 2006 Oct;94(4):421–9, e205

Sources to search

When searching the literature for a qualitative systematic review, all the sources below need to be considered:

  • Databases - subject specific databases, general databases, evidence-based databases
  • Reference lists
  • Citation indexes such as Web of Science and Scopus
  • Research - clinical trials registers and research councils
  • Contact with researchers/practitioners
  • Grey literature - sources include reports, dissertations, conference proceedings etc. More information here.
  • Hand searching - manually examining relevant publications page by page
  • Internet - can identify websites of relevant organisations, companies etc which can then be scanned for relevant studies.

Search strategy example for a qualitative systematic review


Here is an example search strategy from Cochrane for the following research question:

Is cognitive behaviour therapy a useful intervention in the prevention of postnatal depression?

The strategy will search for qualitative systematic reviews of Condition OR Intervention. 

  1. qualitative systematic review* OR (systematic review AND qualitative)
  2. evidence synthesis OR realist synthesis
  3. qualitative AND synthesis
  4. meta-synthesis* OR meta synthesis* OR metasynthesis
  5. meta-ethnograph* OR metaethnograph* OR meta ethnograph*
  6. meta-study OR metastudy OR meta study
  7. OR/1-6 {combining qualitative systematic review synonyms}
  8. 7 AND postnatal depression {combining review terms 1-6 with Condition}
  9. 7 AND cognitive behaviour therapy {combining review terms 1-6 with Intervention}
  10. 8 OR 9 {Reviews of postnatal depression or  reviews of cognitive behaviour therapy}

Booth A. Chapter 3: Searching for Studies. In: Noyes J, Booth A, Hannes K, Harden A, Harris J, Lewin S, Lockwood C (editors), Supplementary Guidance for Inclusion of Qualitative Research in Cochrane Systematic Reviews of Interventions.

Critical appraisal of qualitative research

Appraising qualitative evidence requires an assessment of the quality of the research in relation to the research methodology, methods and analyses used and the interpretation of data.

Both QARI (Qualitative Assessment and Review Instrument) and the CASP Qualitative Checklist are well known critical appraisal tools each consisting of ten appraisal criteria:

The McMaster Critical Review form and guidelines are also useful for qualitative studies:


Qualitative systematic reviews:

  • Gallacher, K., Jani, B., Morrison, D., Macdonald, S., Blane, D., Erwin, P., . . . and on behalf of the International Minimally Disruptive Medicine Workgroup. (2013). Qualitative systematic reviews of treatment burden in stroke, heart failure and diabetes - Methodological challenges and solutions. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 13(1), 10.
  • Solway, S., Brooks, D., Lacasse, Y., & Thomas, S. (2001). A qualitative systematic overview of the measurement properties of functional walk tests used in the cardiorespiratory domain. Chest Journal, 119(1), 256-270.