Making Your Literature Review a Little More Systematic: Part 1

I wanted to create a short series of posts to share a few “tricks of the trade” for new investigators, students, and residents that are interested in conducting literature reviews.  I begin by sharing a disclaimer: My own work has come a LONG way – some of my early stuff was pretty bad from a methods standpoint.  I say this first because I think it is easy to gloss over the struggle and work it has taken me to build better processes that have improved my academic productivity in recent years.  I like to show one or two of these early publications to demonstrate to students “What NOT to do” when conducting a literature review.  So let’s get started with a few easy steps that may help you decide whether or not you want to embark on a systematic review.

Set up a meeting with the campus library

Most academic institutions have resources housed within the school library where you may actually speak to an expert to help build your review.  Some libraries (like the one we are fortunate to have at the University of Maryland, Baltimore) will actually work with you from start to finish, help design your search strings, de-duplicate your search results, and load your searches into a bibliography tool.  At a minimum, you should be able to speak with someone directly to help you think about what resources are at your disposal.

Read the PRISMA Statement

Everyone on your research team should take time to review the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) website.  This is where I started years ago – utilizing the PRISMA Checklist & PRISMA Flow Diagram help guide your whole process.  If you fill out the checklist in detail at every step of the way it becomes super easy to write the methods of your manuscript.

Consider Prospective Registration at PROSPERO

My first experience with the PROSPERO registry, funded by the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research, was extremely helpful.  Beginning in 2017, I worked with Emily Heil and a team of students to develop a systematic review to evaluate the cost of antibiotic prescribing with and without self-reported penicillin allergy (PROSPERO ID: CRD42017064112).  The amazing team at the University of York’s Centre for Reviews and Dissemination quickly reviewed our protocol, recommended a few revisions, and had the protocol registered in about a week.  This added clarity to our methods, gave us an objective review before we started, and helped tremendously when it was time to write our methods section of the manuscript (recently published by JACI: In Practice).

Build a Good Team

Systematic reviews should never be done solo.  You need to build in a process during the various steps (ie: Screening, Eligibility, Data Abstraction, Data Synthesis) that are replicable and tested by having multiple members of your team do them independently.  This is a great project for students in a PharmD program and an excellent way for them to learn proper literature review methods and maybe even get a publication on their CV!  Be sure not to assume everyone has experience with searching the literature.  I have had several students work with me that start by saying, “Yeah, I’ve done a literature review before” but have never heard of PRISMA and are only familiar with one database (usually PubMed). So I usually schedule an hour orientation with students that agree to join the team and make sure we are all on the same page.

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Joey Mattingly, PharmD, MBA is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy located in Baltimore, Maryland. Joey has managed retail and long-term care pharmacy operations in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. Leading Over The Counter is a blog of Joey's views and opinions on the topics of pharmacy leadership and management and do not represent the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Joey can be followed on Twitter @joeymattingly.

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