Searching and Beyond: The Librarian’s role in systematic reviews

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!)

Support for Researchers

Senate House - the venue

Senate House – the venue

In December I attended the cpd25 event Support for Researchers. A key theme of the presentations and discussion was collaboration. With the roles of libraries evolving as research needs and activities change, collaboration with other relevant services and departments can offer greater knowledge, expertise and skills. Much of this was echoed in the Guardian Higher Education live chat last Friday. I have collated the Guardian’s tweets from the live chat into Storify:
[View the story “Guardian #HElivechat” on Storify]

Supporting Researchers Collaboratively

The first presentation, Supporting Researchers Collaboratively, was from Miggie Pickton and Nick Dimmock from the Research Support Team, part of the Library and Learning Services (LLS) at University of Northampton. Miggie and Nick spoke about the Research Support Hub, a blog which brings news of interest to researchers into one place, where before it was scattered. It publicises services of the Graduate School, the Research and Strategic Bidding Office (RSBO) and LLS Research Support Team.

They also spoke about other ways they are collaborating with other parts of the University. A mandatory four-day induction for new researchers which involves two days of information and research skills, such as the institutional repository, is a chance to identify learning needs by meeting face-to-face. The institutional repository also offers an opportunity for collaboration through technical help, metadata and copyright support. It’s the main source of data for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), and representatives of LLS and RSBO are on a REF working group. Collaboration can bring an invitation into research community, and higher visibility and perceived value.

New technologies and online research presence

The second presentation, Blogs, Twitter, Wikis and other web-based tools: collaboration and building your online presence, was from Jenny Evans, Imperial College. This is a six-week programme of face-to-face and online elements for PhD students, exploring tools and technologies, but also developing online research presence.

Collaboration occurs within the project, as the library staff write content for the programme, which includes case studies of researchers at various career stages and how they’re using these tools.

Obligatory 'research' photo

Obligatory ‘research’ photo

Perspectives of a Research student

Tahani Nadim presented on her experiences doing a PhD, giving us an insight into her self-proclaimed “messy practices”. Tahani has also worked as an institutional repository manager, and has completed Library research as part of JISC funded projects, so was able to bridge the gap between researchers and library/information staff.

Although Tahani never had a problem gathering data, it was organising information that was more challenging. Since she wants to, and will, revisit her texts, audio files and transcripts from interviews, there are issues of the management and organisation of this information. It’s as much about managing your research as actually doing it! When opened up for a Q&A, it seemed PhD researchers are very much in isolation, making it difficult for librarians to anticipate their needs and skill-levels. The students are much more likely to go to their peers for advice and support, even if it is something the library does offer. Increasing visibility, and an increased embedded nature of library liaison, can help alleviate some of this.

Points of discussion

Some interesting themes emerged in the discussion session, including;

  • Support for bidding process
  • Value of librarians as practitioner researchers
  • Re-focusing titles of our courses, and building in more “research” aspects to existing sessions
  • Effects of Open Access policies on libraries

Evaluating our support for researchers is a current hot topic at my own workplace, so the chance to benchmark with other university libraries was valuable. There was quite a discrepancy between the support offered by different institutions, both in terms of how much was offered, and what shape that support took.