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Systematic Reviews and Evidence Syntheses: Tips for a Successful Review Team

A guide to the methodology of and resources for Systematic Reviews

Overview

Informal survey and anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of evidence synthesis projects do not make it to publication. Evidence synthesis projects may fall apart for a variety of reasons including but not limited to:

  • Lack of a review protocol
  • Lack of a designated team leader
  • Poor time management
  • Issues with authorship
  • Lack of team cohesion

The purpose of this page is to share time-tested tips which will help you steer your project all the way from protocol to publication.


Thanks to J.D. Mann, R.J. Schildhouse, W.A. Townsend, University of Michigan, and MLA for the webinar, "From Protocol To Publication: Maximizing the Return on Your Systematic Review Investment."

Protocol

Before you begin your project, it is best practice to write a review protocol with your team. A well-written review protocol helps your project run smoothly and protects against bias.

Your protocol should describe the planning for the project, including a timeline, anticipated author contributions, and much more. You can find a template for systematic review protocols attached at the bottom of this box.

When creating a systematic review protocol, it can be useful to review PRISMA-P, the reporting standard for systematic review protocols.

Team

The composition of your review team is integral to the success of your project. We recommend designating one person as the project leader. The project leader should be responsible for:

  • Final decisions on the scope of the project
  • Creating and enforcing the timeline
  • Developing the protocol
  • Keeping the team in the loop
  • Sending regular updates
  • Submitting the manuscript and corresponding with journals

A successful project team should include:

  • Project leader
  • Methodologist (someone well-acquainted with your chosen evidence synthesis methodology)
  • Reviewer(s)
  • Subject expert(s)
  • Librarian
  • Project manager
  • Statistician (only if you are conducting a meta-analysis)

Don't be concerned by the long list above; team members can (and usually do) have multiple roles. For example: the librarian may also be the methodologist. The project leader will also be a reviewer, a subject expert, and likely, the project manager.

Authorship

It is imperative to agree on authorship at the onset of your project. Do not glide along on assumptions alone. You do not want to get to publication only to have a falling-out over who should be the first author on the manuscript. Therefore, to avoid this, you should have a conversation and come to an agreement on both the order of authorship, as well as who qualifies as an author.

Typically, the project leader is both the first author and the corresponding author.

When there is a question on authorship for projects in the health sciences, people frequently refer to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommendations on "Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors."

For more thoughts on the conventions of scientific authorship, see this post from Science.

Time Management

Time management is essential to the success of any evidence synthesis project. The following time management tips will help your team progress smoothly through your project.

Realistic timelines should be set at the outset. Systematic reviews typically take between 9-18 months from protocol to publication. As you decide on timelines, you should thoroughly consider all team members' responsibilities, both inside and outside the project.

Regular updates, typically in the form of a weekly email, helps keep the momentum going. It's difficult for the project to drop off someone's radar when they are receiving weekly email updates. This can be especially important during the screening stages, during which reviewers will be screening dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of articles, by themselves. It can be useful to include the timeline as a running section of the weekly email.

Frequent milestones will also help keep the momentum going. Imagine you have to screen 2,010 titles and abstracts over the next 6 weeks for a project. At face value, this can seem quite unwieldy. However, setting more frequent sub-milestones (for example: 335 per week), can help this feel more manageable and help avoid project burnout.