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Systematic Reviews and Knowledge Synthesis for the Sciences

What is Knowledge Synthesis?

The purpose of this guide is to introduce readers to knowledge synthesis in the sciences disciplines.

Knowledge synthesis is "the method of synthesizing results from individual studies and interpreting these results within the context of global evidence."1 Knowledge synthesis (or, evidence synthesis) includes many types of reviews, including systematic, scoping, and rapid reviews, as well as evidence gap maps. This type of research methodology identifies and evaluates all scholarship on a specific topic. Knowledge synthesis aims to bring a comprehensive review forward to answer specific research questions and identify knowledge gaps.

There are many types of knowledge syntheses. To learn about the different types, please see Types of Knowledge Synthesis.

Literature Reviews vs. Systematic Reviews

There are several crucial differences between systematic reviews and literature reviews.2

  Literature Reviews Systematic Reviews
Research Question General and broad. Typically, literature reviews are used to situate the author's research into broader published research Specific and focused
Searching Ad hoc and may not be exhaustive or comprehensive Well-reported, comprehensive, and reproducible search methodology
Source Selection Ad hoc and often lacking clear reasoning why sources were selected over others Well-defined inclusion and exclusion criteria, based on the research question
Evaluation of Sources May not be methodical and lacking critical appraisal Systematically evaluates studies for quality and potential biases
Summary of Findings Often reported qualitatively and may not consider the quality of study methodology and results. Conclusions have recommendations for practice and identify gaps in knowledge.

How Librarians Can Help

Support for knowledge synthesis projects focus on training and consultation. What we can do for you:

  • We offer introductory workshops about knowledge synthesis methods, both in person and online
  • We provide information and links to resources on this knowledge synthesis guide
  • We provide feedback on your project protocol and literature search strategy

Book a consultation to ask questions and receive guidance from one of our science librarians.  

Please note, librarians can be heavily involved in the knowledge synthesis and systematic review process. However, content experts manage specific steps in the process.

Librarians use their judgement in terms of time commitment to knowledge synthesis projects based on their research interests and availability. Librarians who create and write the search methodology will be included as a co-author on publications. Librarians who collaborate with the team on search strategy and/or citation management will be acknowledged in publications.

Please see here for selected examples of UML Librarian co-authored reviews and protocols.


Content on this guide has been reused, with permission, from the University of Manitoba Libraries' Health Sciences' Knowledge Synthesis & Systematic Reviews guide, Cornell University Library's Guide to Evidence Synthesis, and McGill Library's Systematic Reviews, Scoping Reviews, and Other Knowledge Syntheses guide.

1. Knowledge Translation Program. St. Michael's Hospital. (2024). Knowledge synthesis.

2. Table modified from Cornell University Library's What is Evidence Synthesis? page.