Literature reviews and bibliographic research methods: training is the key to success

Even with expert knowledge in a research area, performing reviews is a difficult task which involves rigor, extensive planning, and a comprehensive strategy. In this blog Stéphanie Degroote shares the challenges and the lessons learnt from a recent series of scoping reviews published in Infectious Diseases of Poverty.

I had the privilege to be the coordinator of the VERDAS consortium (VEctor-boRne DiseAses Scoping reviews) during the past couple of years; this has recently resulted in the publication of the series of scoping reviews and related papers in Infectious Diseases of Poverty. As the content of the scoping reviews and the implication of the findings are discussed in the articles of the series, I would like to share here a methodological point of view about the challenging and learning experience it has been coordinating this consortium.

The consortium was assembled to perform a vast knowledge synthesis with renowned international experts of the topic but with little experience of systematic reviews. This was a major challenge identified during the preparation of the project and thus, we knew that we had to put an emphasis of the methodological guidance.

The consortium was constituted of six different research teams in five different countries, making coordination fundamental. My first role was to develop the protocol for scoping reviews that all teams will follow and then to provide methodological support to help the research teams along the way.

In our daily research, researchers and students are all used to dealing with scientific databases and papers, so intuitively, we collectively often assume that starting a literature review exercise would be easy, from a methodological point of view, as we are already familiar with the tools at our disposal. In reality, this is not always the case.

A search strategy needs to be thought out ahead, then tested, re-oriented several times, and then a final search corresponding to exactly what we need to look for can be done.

As the first steps of the protocol were in progression within the VERDAS consortium, we soon realized that we might all lack specific bibliographic training. We were lucky as we received the help from a specialized librarian at the inception of the project and she agreed to revise our entire protocol and to validate it. She then trained me in bibliographic research methods and I was able to better support other members of the consortium.

Performing a review, whatever the type of review, is not an easy task, and the rigor needed, and the workload associated to it, seemed to be often under-estimated. A comprehensive search of scientific databases cannot be run in a few minutes with a few keywords. A search strategy needs to be thought out ahead, then tested, re-oriented several times, and then a final search corresponding to exactly what we need to look for can be done.

Then comes the selection process, the data extraction, the analysis and synthesis etc. All these steps need to be done while ensuring validity and replicability, which is not an easy task for one review, let alone six parallel reviews done in five different countries.

All members of the consortium jumped with enthusiasm at this exciting project, resulting in very interesting publications. But one of the major lessons learnt from this experience is that even though we were all very familiar with the scientific literature, more training on bibliographic research methods are needed to fully understand the potential of these tools.

It is important to integrate this training in M.Sc and Ph.D programs. Aware of this need, we offered training sessions in Canada, Germany, Cuba, Haiti and France to revise basics and give students a fuller picture. It became obvious that in dedicating at least one half-day to training can save several unproductive days, possibly even weeks, of wasted resources. Giving researchers greater confidence in the work done.

To conclude, one of the biggest lessons learnt from a methodological point of view from this experience, is that in this type of international consortium, having an expert in systematic reviews is incredibly helpful, and having access to the advice and recommendations of a librarian is essential when performing any type of literature reviews.

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