This a day-long course on the systematic review (SR) process and the role/opportunities for librarians and information professionals was just what I was looking for. Knowledge of SRs is something I’d recognised as a skills gap, so I jumped at the chance to attend this course in Winchester last month.
There was a surprising amount of interaction considering this wasn’t a hands-on workshop, and the time passed quickly – it never felt like a lecture. Four members of ESMI (Evidence Synthesis & Modelling for Health Improvement) based at the University of Exeter took us through an overview of how SRs are undertaken and how info skills fit into a SR, including searching, reference management and screening.
What are SRs?
“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.” This definition is taken from the Cochrane Library website, an organisation which produces SRs and which I regularly refer to when searching for evidence.
SRs are at the top of the traditional hierarchy of evidence. Although the hierarchy is not a perfect measure, the idea is that SRs limit bias, aim for high reliability (replicable with the same results) and carry more weight.
Systematic review vs Literature review?
Both provide summaries of the literature, but there are important differences. The question, protocol, and process of selecting and evaluating studies, among other things, should be stated clearly in an SR, whereas a literature review has less emphasis on transparency and reliability.
The role of the info pro
Looking back over my information pack from the day, I see that two of the objectives were “confidence in your existing skills” and “Learn new skills”. On reflection, I am surprised how unintimidating the speakers made the whole thing. Yes, SRs are a huge undertaking, but I do have confidence in my skills and can see myself adapting to the SR process.
Understandably, searching is the primary way information professionals are involved in SRs. I know I have definitely done scoping searches for our staff in the past. But we can be involved in other less obvious parts of the process, such as screening results for inclusion/exclusion. The speakers showed how they use reference management software to screen, which is something I’d never considered. For a large scale literature search, I might now use free software like Mendeley or Zotero.
A lot of the attendees were healthcare librarians like myself – involved in literature searching for clinicians and researchers, but not currently involved in SRs, and possibly not in a position to be. SRs can take 12 months at least for a good one (roughly) so not something to get involved in lightly, but a lot of the methodology and processes are applicable on a smaller scale.
The course really clarified SRs and our role within them, I highly recommend it (and in fact there is another one running in Exeter in January!)