According to the Cochrane Library, "A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions.)
The key characteristics of a systematic review are:
a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;
an explicit, reproducible methodology;
a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria;
an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and
a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.
(Chapter 1.2.2, Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from www.cochrane-handbook.org.)
The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions is the official guide that describes in detail the process of preparing and maintaining Cochrane systematic reviews on the effects of healthcare interventions.