Background: Systematic review methods span qualitative syntheses (e.g. meta-ethnography, thematic synthesis), mixed methods syntheses (e.g. realist synthesis, framework synthesis) and quantitative synthesis (e.g. statistical meta-analysis and meta-regression). They differ in terms of how they identify studies, appraise their quality and synthesise findings. Review methods have been applied to different types of questions and different types of studies, often developed by different teams working independently without a clear methodological overview.
Objectives: To make sense of the diversity of review methods available with a coherent framework for choosing 'fit for purpose’ review methods.
Methods: Systematic reviews from a purposive sample that either configured or aggregated findings (1) were analysed in terms of the source and type of their questions, their purposes (generating, exploring or testing theory), data (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed), methods (linear, iterative; qualitative, quantitative, or mixed), and products (syntheses of concepts or measures).
Results: A series of visual representations of the diversity of review questions, purposes, data and methods evolved through discussions to provide a coherent framework for choosing between review methods.
Conclusions: Three major pathways for reviews begin with: clear conceptual frameworks (for testing hypotheses), partially developed frameworks (for exploring theory); or tentative concepts (for generating theory). These pathways differ in terms of whether: they aim to find all relevant studies or all relevant concepts; the search strategy is linear or iterative; they appraise the study methods, findings or both; they aggregate or configure the findings of studies; they comment on the risk of bias or coherence of findings; and how well they are suited to instrumental models of knowledge transfer, or interactive or enlightenment models of knowledge exchange.
Sandelowski M. Reading, writing and systematic review. J Adv Nurs. 2008;64(1):104-10.