Narrative vs systematic vs scoping review: What’s the difference?


I often get asked what the difference between a narrative review and a systematic review is, or what the difference between a narrative review and a scoping review is. This is also something I wondered about when I was new to the world of research.

Let’s first look at what a systematic review and scoping review are. A systematic review is done to identify research studies published on a certain topic, with the primary aim to recommend best practice on a certain topic and inform policy. This is very useful if there are discrepancies in the way in which a certain practice is performed, but also to recommend new approaches to practice. A scoping review is done to determine the research out there on a certain topic. Scoping reviews do not involve a critical appraisal process like systematic reviews do, but they are also conducted using a rigorous and systematic process. This video elaborates on the difference between systematic and scoping reviews.

A narrative review, also referred to as a traditional review, summarises and presents the available research on a topic. You will commonly see a traditional or narrative review as part of a thesis or dissertation. A narrative review is more biased than systematic and scoping reviews as it relies on the author’s background knowledge on a topic.

Zachary Munn, and his colleagues, all of them systematic review experts, alludes to the difference in a very useful article published in 2018. Munn et al list the differences between scoping reviews and narrative reviews, but the same goes for the difference between systematic reviews and narrative reviews. Scoping reviews:

1. “Are informed by an a priori protocol;

2. Are systematic and often include exhaustive searching for information;

3. Aim to be transparent and reproducible;

4. Include steps to reduce error and increase reliability (such as the inclusion of multiple reviewers);

5. Ensure data is extracted and presented in a structured way”.

In Table 1 of this article, the difference between the three types of review becomes clear.

How do you know if an article is a narrative review or a systematic review or scoping review? These three look different to one another. In the video below, we look at an example of each.

Now that you know the difference between a narrative review, a scoping and a systematic review, you are ready to decide if a narrative review needs to be done or should it be a systematic or scoping review. If you know that you need to do a systematic review or scoping review, but you are not sure what the difference is, or if you can’t decide what type of systematic review you want to do, or even if you want to figure out the difference between a systematic review and meta-analysis, have a look at the Systematic Reviews playlist on the Research Masterminds YouTube channel to get your questions answered. And while you are at it, subscribe to the Research Masterminds YouTube channel.

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