The taming of the review

Our review of software to aid end-to-end management of systematic reviews or systematic maps is now available open access via Environmental Evidence.

Undertaking any kind of large literature review or meta-analysis can be a cumbersome process, keeping track of different searches, which papers you decided were relevant or irrelevant and why, and then extracting the necessary data and synthesising the results.

We’re in the digital era now so it should be easier than it once was, right?! If anything, managing a large review is harder than ever because there is simply so much material available, so many databases to search and an ever-increasing level of rigour expected by reviewers.

Over the last year I’ve been working on a systematic mapping exercise, collating evidence on the outcomes of systematic conservation planning interventions. Developing a systematic map (a kind of comprehensive database) involves following a structured search strategy, article screening procedures and data extraction methodology, designed to be easily replicated. (If you’re interested in the specifics, we followed the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence guidelines and our peer-reviewed protocol is also available via Environmental Evidence).

Early in the process, I was curious to find out what software is available to help manage the systematic mapping process – with a team of six of us, excel just wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to keep track of which database a paper came from, which screening stage it was excluded at and why (we had to screen over 10,000 articles by title, 5,000 by title and abstract and over 1,000 by full text!) and then systematically extract data from all included articles. We also needed to all be able to work on the database at the same time from different locations, and couldn’t afford to pay high software registration costs.

“The principal  advantage  of  using  software  to  assist  in  managing  the  review  process  is  to  increase  efficiency  of   time   consuming   tasks,   to   allow   for   efforts   to   be concentrated on the most important tasks—namely synthesis  and  analysis.” Kohl et al. 2018

What to do? Well, as this new publication demonstrates, plenty of others have sought to provide solutions to this challenge, including Christian Kohl and his colleagues at the Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI), behind the new software CADIMA. Thanks to Neal Haddaway, we all teamed up and combined an introduction to the beautifully designed, free software CADIMA, with a review of 22 other software packages designed to assist evidence synthesisers to tame their reviews.

Check it out before embarking on your next review, however great or small. Many of the software packages are freely available, several include innovative machine learning capacities, and over 40% are designed to be flexible enough for users from any discipline.

You can access our new paper for free via the journal Environmental Evidence.  

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