About Michelle Maden's keynote at the International Clinical Librarian Conference 2023.

Michelle Maden recently delivered her very well received International Clinical Librarian Conference 2023 keynote speech as an online webinar for NHS librarians and information specialists.  

Michelle began by talking about the rise in popularity of carrying out systematic reviews, from 1,223 carried out in 2002 to 46,665 in 2022.  The appeal of desk based research that requires no ethical approval is clear, but it was interesting think about how researchers at different stages in their career might use systematic reviews, and how they might differ in their support requirements. 

It was reassuring to hear that librarian involvement in systematic reviews had recognisable benefits in reducing risk of bias in search conduct, raising the quality of search reporting and improving the reproducibility of searches.  In terms of impact on review findings, there is evidence to show that librarians engaged in supplementary search techniques (forwards and backwards citation searches etc) made significant contributions to a synthesis. 

Librarians can have significant impact in the scoping process which supports systematic review protocol development.  Identifying sources, checking PROSPERO, and running test searches are key. 

Michelle reminded us that it is an iterative process which can be ‘messy’, well before the final search strategies come together.  Inclusion/exclusion criteria (as well as the review question) direct the search but she emphasised that researchers must recognise which criteria should be managed by the search and which should be managed by the screening process, and they may need our help to do that.

Reporting the search is likely to be the part that gains us co-authorship, and Michelle shared some valuable tools to keep on top of the 2020 PRISMA checklist requirements, including a link to an app to create the PRISMA flowchart

She emphasised the vital importance of peer review of search strategies, and told us not to panic when reviewers come back with a paper that wasn’t in the final set. There will most likely be good reasons, don’t jump to the conclusion that your search was flawed before exploring other options.  However, do document absolutely every decision made which affected the search in any way, no matter how insignificant – transparency is key.

Michelle identified that a lack of specialist training in supporting systematic reviews was a problem, coupled with a lack of organisational policies / guidelines on librarian involvement.  This makes discussions about managing demand and charging for services difficult.  One solution would be to encourage the sharing of examples of this type of document so that good practice can spread.

Evidence synthesis is a rapidly advancing methodology, Michelle advised us to look beyond the guidance to empirical research, and to check out specialist journals such as Research Synthesis Methods to keep on top of search methodology advances.  She also recommended getting involved in initiatives such as Cochrane Crowd to get some relevant experience, particularly for people wanting to move towards becoming a systematic reviewer themselves, or who are looking at new roles.  Engaging with peer review initiatives was recommended, both as a submitter of search strategies and as a peer reviewer.

Michelle finished with excellent advice – “Librarians bring a vital expertise to the systematic review process…add to that expertise and increase your employability by pushing out of your comfort zone and expanding your role”.

Sources of support

A Systematic Review Searchers Community of Practice exists for those performing searches for systematic reviews and those interested in increasing their skills in this area. The ever-handy National Searching Guidance suggests searching for the email address [email protected] at Jiscmail in order to request access, and to contact member Sarah Rudd if you experience difficulties joining the community: [email protected].

Systematic Review Conversations webinar series from Lancaster University library: check out the programme, and register to attend via Teams and view the videos afterwards. 

Some free resources to help with skills development

A Campbell Collaboration free online course:  Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis.

Systematic Review Toolbox: an online catalogue of tools that support various tasks within the systematic review and wider evidence synthesis process, run by the Review and Information Services team at York Health Economics Consortium (University of York), the Evidence Synthesis Group at Newcastle University/NIHR Innovation Observatory, and the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.

Systematic Review and Systematic Mapping: Dr Neal Haddaway.

Carrie Price YouTube channel:  An American librarian who specialises in methodology of systematic reviews, her YouTube channel has lots of really useful “how to” type videos and explanations of different tools and review types.


Sarah Gardner

Clinical Evidence Specialist

Doncaster & Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Page last reviewed: 26 February 2024