The role of health librarians in systematic reviews

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 5 February 2018


See also Expert searching | Hand-searching | How do I write a systematic review protocol? | Software for systematic reviewing | Systematic review librarian | Systematic review searching

What are the main roles for health librarians in the systematic review (SR)?

"...information professionals have evolved from simply acting as 'evidence locators' and 'resource providers' to being quality literature filterers, critical appraisers, educators, disseminators, and even change managers." — Beverley, 2003

The range of roles available to health librarians in the systematic review process has broadened considerably from 2000 to 2016.

According to Beverley et al (2003), health librarians can assume several key roles in systematic review teams but that "...information professionals' [roles] have evolved from simply acting as 'evidence locators' and 'resource providers' to being quality literature filterers, critical appraisers, educators, disseminators and even change managers." Further, the health librarian's role as expert searcher in the SR is widely-recognized and many health librarians are deepening their involvement by formulating research questions, developing exclusion criteria, search strategies, documentation, record keeping, and refining study methodologies (Dudden & Protzko, 2011). In many cases, health librarians are viewed as essential to the research teams (Janke, 2014), and some have started to become knowledgeable in data management.

While health librarians play key roles in systematic reviews, their expertise in searching is shared through consultation services and coaching clinicians through the search process. Several issues should be negotiated and considered when assuming these coaching or teaching roles. Efficient retrieval is a significant and central part of answering clinical questions, and in gathering the extant evidence. In the initial stages of research, it becomes critical to find all relevant studies and searches (at least initial searching) must be conducted in multiple databases and sources (including those in the deep, hidden web known as grey literature). Information specialists (expert searchers) are required to maximize search recall and minimize bias. Some librarians argue it’s more efficient to develop sensitive strategies at the beginning of the process than trying to play 'catch up' and fill in gaps later. Expert searching should reflect this kind of thinking. Comprehensive searching for all relevant studies is essential, as is documentation of explicit strategies.

The health librarian's mantra should be to document and report all search strategies. This should include hand-searching and snowballing as required, and searching for grey literature. The latter involves locating additional citations that are not normally indexed in the major biomedical databases such as MEDLINE and EMBASE. At some point, all health librarians have to come to terms with their research collaborations, and asking (where and when appropriate) for co-authorship.

Typical activities where health librarians get involved

  • Preliminary consultations with physicians, clinicians, researchers
  • The construction of search strategies (databases, resources, keywords, controlled terms)
  • The collection and management of citations and full-text papers
  • Critical appraisal of the literature
  • Extracting data from selected literature
  • Writing literature review methodology section
  • Reviewing draft of full article before submission
  • Updating information collected & methodology as needed

See Memorandum of understanding for systematic reviews

Exhaustive searches

Exhaustive searching of the medical literature has always been an important part of the systematic review process. However, it has taken a decade or more for researchers to rely on medical and health librarians for their search expertise (Potomkova, 2010). In general, the following search knowledge, skills and expertise are mentioned in the literature as indispensable to the systematic review process:

  1. Expert searching skill is a critical part of conducting a well-designed systematic review
  2. Comprehensive searching of all relevant databases for relevant studies includes unpublished literature
  3. Documentation of explicit strategies is essential for reproducibility
  4. Health librarians play key roles in process including consultant, teacher; on some projects, health librarians assume roles as co-investigators (Janke, 2014) and co-authors
  5. Other defined roles include literature search coach, expert searcher, search process documentationalist, reference manager, interlibrary lender and document supplier, report writer and information scientist.

Systematic review guides

Increasingly, academic health sciences libraries provide provide support for the training of staff and students in how to search the literature when undertaking systematic reviews. In the past three to five years, the requests for assistance in the area of developing and refining search strategies intended to identify all relevant studies have gone way up. Consequently, librarians in the health sciences have built their expertise in meeting these challenges and in assuming critical roles in the process. Several academic librarians have developed guidelines to respond to the requests by faculty, staff, students and researchers, some of which listed below.

Peer review of searches

Doing a peer review of search strategies is a relatively new concept. In Canada, there is a project entitled Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) which includes a checklist (available in Appendix G) to use as an evidence-based scale for the peer review of electronic search strategies.


Supporting websites

See also NNLM Super Searcher: Enhancing Your Online Search Super Powers

Co-authoring systematic reviews

A librarian or information specialist may want to co-author a systematic review based on the following criteria:

  1. Searches were executed according to international standards (Cochrane and such)
  2. In writing the method, the PRISMA flow diagram and search strategies were included, and require librarian expertise
  3. A search strategy is the research method in a SR
  4. Research methods should be described properly = reproducible
  5. Information specialists can describe the search strategy
  6. Librarians will take responsibility for the search process

The quality of a systematic review depends on the rigour and quality of the search strategy. Librarians stand for the quality. Usually co-authorship is provided without much discussion. Co-authorship is not about honour or ego-boosting; it's about standing for good research.


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