Librarians' Roles in Producing Systematic Reviews
As clinicians look to improve patient health care outcomes, they rely on the principles set forth by the practice of evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based medicine is “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients…integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.” To gather this most current and best clinical evidence, researchers use the process of systematic review. Systematic review is a type of research that summarizes medical reports and studies on a very specific clinical question. The process of systematic review merges data from separately conducted studies, which sometimes reveals conflicting findings, and then synthesizes those results. Systematic reviews can help determine whether scientific findings are consistent across different populations, settings, and treatment variations, or whether findings vary significantly by particular subgroups.
Contrary to narrative reviews, which are based on implicit research methods, systematic reviews begin with an explicit, structured plan and comprehensive search strategy that has well-defined inclusion criteria for determining which articles to include or exclude from synthesis. These “systematic” methods are designed to reduce bias, which can sometimes exist in narrative reviews as a result of incomplete literature searches and the author’s personal opinion. Systematic reviews usually include a meta-analysis, which is simply a statistical method of combining data from associated quantitative studies (e.g. randomized control trials, controlled clinical trials or observational studies) to produce a single quantitative estimate or summary effect size.
Librarians and Systematic Reviews
Systematic reviews are rigorous in nature and usually require a team of professionals to bring to fruition. Librarians play an important role in the process of systematic review, functioning as expert searcher, organizer, and analyzer. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released guidelines for researchers interested in conducting systematic reviews. On conducting comprehensive systematic searches for evidence, standard 3.1.1 states, “Work with a librarian or other information specialist trained in performing systematic reviews to plan the search strategy,” and standard 3.1.3 states, “Use an independent librarian or other information specialist to peer review the search strategy.”
Librarians serve as expert searchers and search strategists in the systematic review process, using their expertise to choose the appropriate databases to search based on the scope and subject content of the study. The MLA Task Force on Expert Searching defines the expert search as “a mediated process in which a user with an information need seeks consultation and assistance from a recognized expert.” The task force describes the skills and knowledge required to be considered an expert, explaining that the searcher is usually a highly trained and experienced librarian with a master's level degree from a library school program accredited by the American Library Association.
12 Reasons to include a librarian on your next systematic review:
1. To determine if your proposed systematic review has been done before
2. To help formulate your clinical questions(s)
3. To clarify and refine your search strategy
4. To help define your inclusion and exclusion criteria
5. To determine which databases are appropriate to search based on the scope, date range, and subject content of your systematic review
6. To avoid potential problems with nomenclature in your search strategies
7. To have an expert on hand with knowledge on individual database accessibility and of the different search syntax/truncation requirements for each database
8. To have an expert on hand with knowledge on searching not just published journal articles, but also areas of grey literature like book chapters, ongoing trials, conference abstracts, white papers, and even unpublished studies
9. To collect and file the “yes” articles from the initial search screening, either manually or through interlibrary loan
10. For help in writing the “methodology” section of the systematic review
11. To generate the final bibliography
12. To give your systematic review the added credibility of including a librarian as part of the research team, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine, the Cochrane Collaboration, and the Medical Library Association
(CC Image, Courtesy of JISC)