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Scoping Review vs Systematic Review: Understanding The Difference

Scoping Review vs Systematic Review: Understanding The Difference

February 8, 2024

When conducting research, different approaches are employed to gather and analyze relevant information. Two commonly used methods are scoping reviews and systematic reviews. 

A scoping review is a methodological approach to map and summarize existing literature on a particular topic. It is a less rigorous process than a systematic review. Still, it can be a valuable tool for researchers trying to get a broad overview of the available evidence by identifying key concepts, sources, and research gaps.

On the other hand, a systematic review is a more rigorous process that aims to summarize the findings of primary research studies that address a specific research question. Systematic reviews critically appraise the included studies, often using statistical methods to synthesize the results. 

While both studies aim to gather evidence, their methodologies and research questions differ. 

Difference in Research Questions: Broad vs Narrow

The main difference between a scoping review and a systematic review lies in their research questions. A scoping review typically focuses on broad research questions to explore the breadth and depth of existing literature on a topic. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the field. In contrast, a systematic review addresses narrow research questions, offering more precise answers based on a thorough analysis of available evidence. Here is an example of each:

Table representing the difference between scoping review vs systematic review. Examples of scoping vs systematic reviews are provided.

Difference in Scoping Review vs Systematic Review Methodology

The difference between scoping and systematic reviews extends beyond their research questions. 

The scoping review methodology involves several important steps:

  1. Firstly, researchers identify the research question or objective.
  2. Then, they develop a search strategy to retrieve relevant literature. 
  3. Studies are selected based on predefined inclusion and exclusion criteria. 
  4. Data from the chosen studies are extracted and analyzed. 
  5. Finally, the findings are summarized, and gaps in the literature are identified. 

The results are presented transparently and in a reproducible manner.

Scoping reviews are becoming more popular as a research method, and they are increasingly used to guide research priorities and uncover policy or practice implications. However, there is a concern with how scoping reviews are reported, leading to inconsistent quality assessment and difficulty understanding their findings.

An AI robot reading the scoping review vs systematic review blog by Laser AI
Source: This image was generated with the assistance of AI (

The methodology of a systematic review is more structured and rigorous:

  1. It begins with formulating a focused research question.
  2. They then define the inclusion and exclusion criteria. 
  3. Researchers then conduct a comprehensive and systematic search of multiple databases to retrieve relevant studies. 
  4. These studies are screened and selected based on predefined criteria. 
  5. Quality assessment and risk of bias appraisal are performed for the included studies. 
  6. Data extraction and analysis are carried out.
  7. The evidence is synthesized using appropriate statistical methods; this may even include a meta-analysis. 

The findings are reported transparently and in a reproducible manner.

While both methodologies share a similar process of literature search, study selection, and data extraction, systematic reviews are known for their higher methodological rigour. Systematic reviews require more stringent quality assessment and risk of bias appraisal. They often involve meta-analysis for quantitative data synthesis, making their conclusions more focused and precise. Even though data extraction can be incredibly tedious, technology is available - like Laser AI that can assist in extracting data and minimizing bias in 50% less time than traditional manual labour. 

Publication Disparity between Scoping and Systematic Reviews

By searching on PubMed, systematic reviews are more prevalent in published literature than scoping reviews. In 2022, 40166  systematic reviews were found, compared to 5942 scoping reviews. However, over the last decade, despite the rise in systematic reviews, a notable and more significant growth has been observed for scoping reviews. 

This could be attributed to the perception that systematic reviews provide more specific answers than scoping reviews. Although scoping reviews are undermined for their lack of depth, they offer valuable insights into the breadth and extent of existing evidence, highlighting research gaps and informing future investigations.

While systematic reviews are specific, scoping reviews appear to be the most suitable approach when our research aim is to provide a comprehensive overview of a topic, map existing literature, identify key concepts and gaps, and inform future research directions. This method allows for a systematic examination of a wide range of sources, thereby facilitating a more holistic understanding of the subject matter.

A graph that represents the number of scoping reviews on PubMed and the disparity between scoping review and systematic review studies.
A graph that represents the number of systematic reviews on PubMed and the disparity between scoping review and systematic review studies.

Available Software to Aid the Process

As mentioned, systematic reviews take a long time to complete, often taking months or years. AI tools like Laser AI can save time by organizing search results, managing references, and assisting with screening and data extraction processes. Despite the methodological rigor differences, scoping and systematic reviews share certain processes. Therefore, the AI tools dedicated to systematic reviews can also be used to support the conduct of scoping reviews. Laser AI helps researchers, analysts, professors, and governmental bodies in their quest for reliable and trustworthy evidence to inform their decisions and actions.

Scoping and systematic reviews are two distinct methodologies for gathering and synthesizing evidence on specific research questions. While scoping reviews explore the breadth and depth of existing literature, systematic reviews provide detailed answers through a rigorous and comprehensive process. Scoping and systematic reviews are crucial in advancing knowledge and informing evidence-based decisions. Understanding the differences and nuances between these approaches helps researchers choose the suitable method for their research goals. 

Shelby Storme as a freelance digital marketing lead
Shelby Storme Kuhn
Digital Marketing Lead

As a passionate writer with a strong drive for strategic growth, Shelby leverages storytelling techniques to provide value for Evidence Prime's audience.

Ewa Borowiack, Laser AI's evidence synthesis specialist
Ewa Borowiack
Evidence Synthesis Specialist

Evidence Synthesis Specialist with 15 years of experience in conducting HTA reports, systematic reviews, and targeted literature reviews. At Evidence Prime, she provides methodological knowledge to the designers and the software development team.

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