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Here to help: Evidence synthesis support

A literature review is a time-honored feature of published research that distills, to some extent, the previous writings on a topic. But “to some extent” marks the difference between a literature review and the far more robust systematic review, which is becoming increasingly popular in humanities and social science research. This surge in popularity has prompted librarians to spring into action to meet the new demand.

With a systematic review, you want to find all available evidence so you can objectively answer a question.”

- Lauren McKeen McDonald

Until recently, the systematic review was predominantly a tool in health sciences, serving to thoroughly synthesize a wide range of information—an essential step in ensuring that the entire body of medical research informs a new study. Now that other fields are seeking to apply that same rigor, librarians Lauren McKeen McDonald and Jason Kruse have taken on the key role of helping faculty and students with the process known as evidence synthesis, the lifeblood of a systematic review.

But it takes some outreach to convince researchers of the value in librarian-led collaboration. “When people hear ‘systematic review,’ some think, ‘Yeah, I already did that. I looked at all these databases systematically.’ But that’s not enough,” Kruse said. “Evidence synthesis has a formal process. It uses protocols and a methodology that are very specific.”

Evidence synthesis minimizes the possibility of authors consciously or subconsciously cherry-picking research that supports their hypotheses. “A literature review is subjective, because the author chooses what to include in order to frame an argument within the body of scholarship,” McKeen McDonald said. “But with a systematic review, you want to find all available evidence so you can objectively answer a question.”

McKeen McDonald and Kruse host regular workshops on evidence synthesis resulting in one-off faculty consultations and long-term collaborations.

The consultations run a wide gamut. For example, a graduate student looking at the cultural impacts of music education met frequently with McKeen McDonald, who looped in music librarian Greg MacAyeal for his expertise in the appropriate databases. Together, they guided the student and his coauthors through the formal steps—to such an extent that the librarians will be acknowledged in the final paper.

Meanwhile, faculty studying everything from plant seedlings to auditory processing have met with librarians to become comfortable with the evidence synthesis process. Sometimes these consultations are enough to give experienced researchers the tools they need to continue on their own. Other evidence synthesis interactions with faculty may even lead to published collaborations crediting a librarian as coauthor.

No matter the topic, McKeen McDonald and Kruse suggest it’s good practice to seek out the expertise of Northwestern librarians. “There are no systematic review police,” she said. “Sometimes I see examples in journals and think the methodology doesn’t look quite right. Eventually, more journals may have quality-control measures in place to confirm that systematic review standards are met. Partnering with librarians will be a good way to ensure that the work holds up.”