Monday, 9 July 2012

The joys of systematic reviewing

Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birth

I’m often asked what my methodological expertise is. Hmmmm, expertise aye…..

Well, I love a randomised controlled trial – the more complex and difficult the better. But I have grown to love systematic reviewing aswell. As funding becomes harder to get, funders are looking more at systematic reviews and meta-analyses (and modelling) to get to grips with what research is already out there.

As with most things I fell into my first systematic review (which was actually a rapid review so not quite as difficult) on alcohol and liver disease. My role was to manage the team and I found the process fascinating. It was all about preparation and organisation.

I am the module leader on a 10 credit MSc module in Systematic Reviewing. The first thing I tell anyone who asks about how to do a systematic review is that it’s important to do get your team around you. You wouldn't do a trial without a statistician and a methodologist, so we shouldn’t do a systematic review without the necessary expertise. I’m sure I could come up with a half-decent search strategy but I know that our Information Specialists can do it much better than me. I could make a half-decent attempt at meta-analysis (I’ve been on a course you know!) but there are statisticians who can do it far better.

First thing's first: get your team together
So the first thing to do is get your team around you, and then work out what you want to know and how you’re going to do it. Write a protocol like you would for any research work. Importantly, scope the literature, find out what’s been done before. You really don’t want to get half way through and realise someone else has done the work that you are doing or, even worse, not find anything because your question is so obscure. Have regular team meetings to discuss progress. Divide the work into sections – writing the protocol; designing the search strategy; first sift of the data; second sift of the data etc. Draw a gantt chart and be realistic with it – ask other people for their advice on time frames.

Stay positive, lots of people will tell you horror stories of the process of carrying out a systematic review but that is really not the case. It’s like anything, if you go in negatively you will hate it, but if you are positive you will enjoy it.

Finally, be organised, use Endnote as your management tool and make it your friend, make it work for you.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dot. I think it is important also to follow established methods, such as those proposed by the Cochrane Collaboration, the NHS Centre for Reviews & Dissemination at York University or EPPI centre in London. For reviews of social interventions, the Campbell Collaboration has much to offer. I would also exhort anyone doing a systematic review to register it with a review register, such as Cochrane or Prospero, at the outset so that no one else unnecessarily embarks on the same review in the meantime. Lastly, it is important is to decide at the outset on your analytical approach - meta-analytical, meta-regression, narrative, realist synthesis, etc.