Conducting systematic reviews of association (etiology): the Joanna Briggs Institute's approach

Sandeep Moola*, Zachary Munn, Kim Sears, Raluca Sfetcu, Marian Currie, Karolina Lisy, Catalin Tufanaru, Rubab Qureshi, Patrick Mattis, Peifan Mu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

238 Citations (Scopus)


The systematic review of evidence is the research method which underpins the traditional approach to evidence-based healthcare. There is currently no uniform methodology for conducting a systematic review of association (etiology). This study outlines and describes the Joanna Briggs Institute's approach and guidance for synthesizing evidence related to association with a predominant focus on etiology and contributes to the emerging field of systematic review methodologies. It should be noted that questions of association typically address etiological or prognostic issues.The systematic review of studies to answer questions of etiology follows the same basic principles of systematic review of other types of data. An a priori protocol must inform the conduct of the systematic review, comprehensive searching must be performed and critical appraisal of retrieved studies must be carried out.The overarching objective of systematic reviews of etiology is to identify and synthesize the best available evidence on the factors of interest that are associated with a particular disease or outcome. The traditional PICO (population, interventions, comparators and outcomes) format for systematic reviews of effects does not align with questions relating to etiology. A systematic review of etiology should include the following aspects: population, exposure of interest (independent variable) and outcome (dependent variable).Studies of etiology are predominantly explanatory or predictive. The objective of reviews of explanatory or predictive studies is to contribute to, and improve our understanding of, the relationship of health-related events or outcomes by examining the association between variables. When interpreting possible associations between variables based on observational study data, caution must be exercised due to the likely presence of confounding variables or moderators that may impact on the results.As with all systematic reviews, there are various approaches to present the results, including a narrative, graphical or tabular summary, or meta-analysis. When meta-analysis is not possible, a set of alternative methods for synthesizing research is available. On the basis of the research question and objectives, narrative, tabular and/or visual approaches can be used for data synthesis. There are some special considerations when conducting meta-analysis for questions related to risk and correlation. These include, but are not limited to, causal inference.Systematic review and meta-analysis of studies related to etiology is an emerging methodology in the field of evidence synthesis. These reviews can provide useful information for healthcare professionals and policymakers on the burden of disease. The standardized Joanna Briggs Institute approach offers a rigorous and transparent method to conduct reviews of etiology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-169
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • association
  • correlation
  • etiology
  • Joanna Briggs Institute
  • research methodology
  • risk
  • systematic reviews


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