By Olivia Kirtley:
Conducting a systematic review has become somewhat of a rite of passage for PhD students. Systematic reviews can sometimes get a bad press for being “boring” or “unwieldy”, but have the potential to provide critical insight into the state of an area of knowledge as we know it (or think we know it). Often in the cold light of a systematic review, things that we thought were fact are revealed to be spurious. Doing a systematic review is no mean feat however, from either a logistical or an academic perspective. Based on my own experiences of conducting a narrative systematic review, here are a few pointers to consider:
- How many hits did I take again?
One of the most important things when conducting a systematic review is to be organised and keep copious detailed notes of every tiny little thing you have done. And I really do mean everything. This is a great excuse to go and buy yourself a nice new notebook or set up a shiny new Excel sheet to log everything you do.
Things you will want to keep notes on:
- Your search terms (e.g. self-harm, suicid*)
- The dates you conducted your database searches
- Which databases you used, e.g. PsycINFO, Medline, PubMed
- How many hits you got from each
- The exact format in which you entered your search terms into each database (we’ll come back to this in a minute)
In addition to these notes, you should fill out (and include in your review) a PRISMA flow diagram. PRISMA provides best-practice guidelines for conducting your review or meta-analysis, from producing an accurate, replicable search methodology, to what kind of things your review should cover.
Create an account within the databases you use, so that you can save your searches. This will save you countless hours of trying to remember the exact format that you used to enter your search terms if your search times out or you end up having to update your review at some point. Trust me on this! 🙂
You will also want to use some form of reference management software (e.g Endnote), so that you can transfer all of your search hits (not just the ones you think are relevant, that comes later!) to a place where they will not change, disappear or time-out if you get a phone call or start reading PhD Comics.
- This is not a magnum opus.
You’ve read every single one of these X studies a hundred times and you know them inside out. If someone asked you how many participants ate breakfast on the morning of the study in Bloggs et al (2014), you could tell them and also say how many sugars they each had in their coffee. You want to show everyone that you know all of this information. Don’t. This is a systematic review, not a magnum opus. It is not supposed to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of details about each study, it is a finely curated set menu which only includes certain, relevant details that are specific to your research questions.
Leading onto the last point, which is…
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Systematic reviews are usually longer than other types of papers, but this does not issue you with an automatic licence to bore the socks off people or for lazy (or even zero) editing. Just as you would do with an empirical article, always ensure you trim the fat; keep the paper as lean as possible and make sure that your take home messages come through loud and clear. Your systematic review should not be a 50 page list or read like a bibliography. Even though you are looking at previous work, the insights and conclusions you arrive at should be new, interesting and move the area forward. This type of paper is about synthesis, not repetition.
As that great orator, Dr Kelso, once said “nothing in this world worth having comes easy”. Doing a systematic review can be tough, but you will get there! It is a great learning process and a fantastic opportunity to develop detailed expertise in your area. Who knows? Maybe your new insights could provide the platform for a quantum leap in your field!
Do you have any top tips for conducting systematic reviews? We’d love to hear them in the comments or on our Twitter feed @IHAWKES1.