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February 2, 2017

Library Insider

library insider


Systematic reviews and you

A systematic review is a literature review that uses scientific methods to identify, select, appraise and synthesize research literature on a focused topic or question. Use of rigorous pre-specified methods (outlined in advance in the form of a study protocol) decreases the likelihood that the review may be biased in ways that limit its findings.

If you are new to systematic reviews, Pitt libraries have resources that can provide guidance on conducting these complex and intensive research projects. Listed below are some helpful resources:

• Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews: From the Institute of Medicine, this is a comprehensive set of standards for designing, conducting and reporting systematic reviews of comparative effectiveness research.

• Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses: The PRISMA Statement. This widely adopted set of standards focuses on reporting the details of a completed systematic review.

• Doing a Systematic Review: A Student’s Guide (print only; available in Falk, engineering and Hillman libraries): Written for graduate students, this guide contains practical tips, definitions and strategies for completing a comprehensive literature review.

• Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: These protocols and completed systematic reviews focus primarily on health care interventions.

• Campbell Systematic Reviews: These protocols and completed systematic reviews focus on social and economic interventions.

• Getting Ready for a Systematic Review: This document, created by Health Sciences Library System librarians, contains a series of questions to consider if you are thinking about starting a systematic review, as well as requirements for including an HSLS librarian on your review team.


How can librarians assist with your systematic review?

• Has it been done already? Librarians can search for already completed reviews on your topic to assure that your review won’t “reinvent the wheel.”

• What do you mean by that? As you develop your review topic, consider including a librarian in your discussions. We’re trained to ask clarifying questions about information needs, and can help you to define both your topic and the types of studies you hope to include in the review.

• Where should you search? Systematic reviews require comprehensive literature searches, which means you must look beyond the usual information sources. Librarians can recommend subject-specific databases to search, and also can talk with you about “gray literature,” a critical but often-ignored type of literature that should be included in systematic reviews.

• How do you search? Each database search must be comprehensive, meaning that each search should be designed to retrieve as much relevant literature as possible. For many databases, this means you should create a search that contains both natural language terms and controlled vocabulary, or subject headings. Librarians are expert searchers who can consult with you on the best ways to develop these searches and also may be available to design and implement searches for you.

• How do you report what you’ve done? A primary characteristic of a high-quality systematic review is transparency — reporting the study methods in such a way that readers can fully assess the strengths and limitations of the review. Librarians, if they’ve assisted with database selection and constructed the database searches, will be able to provide a detailed account of the literature search process that adheres to national standards for reporting of systematic reviews (see PRISMA Statement above).

Adding a librarian to your systematic review team is a wise move. As outlined here, a librarian can help you to develop a clearly defined question or topic for your review to address, and can also provide guidance and assistance throughout the literature search process.

Mary Lou Klem is a research and instruction librarian for the Health Sciences Library System, and a member of the HSLS systematic review program.

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