My current PhD module is on the research ‘technology’ of systematic reviewing. This type of research study is a manifestation of the evidence-based practice movement driven by the desire to make sure that research informs practice and/or policy. Systematic reviewing arose in the world of medicine as a way of drawing together the findings of different ‘Randomised control trials’ in order to come up with a better answer to whether the intervention x leads to an outcome y. The method of systematic review was/is hailed as better than traditional literature reviews which were criticised for cherry-picking the studies that fit with what an author wants to say. My own view is that the traditional literature review actually has a different purpose – to scope out existing research in an area to highlight the ‘niche’ for a proposed piece of research and as Boell and Cecez-Kecmanovic (2014) eloquently argue can be undertaken just as rigorously.
Anyway, as I’ve gone through the module, I’ve begun to understand that the term systematic review now goes well beyond the original ‘what works’ review of the Cochrane collaboration. There are a multitude of different approaches to identifying and synthesising both quantitative and qualitative information held in research literature underpinned by a variety of study designs – like other forms of research they arise from different epistemological perspectives and therefore approach the task in different ways in order to answer different types of questions. There are now articles of systematic review methods leading to different typologies and a multitude of terms (see for example, Dixon-Woods et al, 2005; Gough et al, 2012; and, Grant and Booth, 2009) and more that focus on different ‘stages’ of the review process especially synthesis (see Barnett-Page and Thomas, 2009).
As I near the end of the module, I’ve started to wonder about the degree to which systematic reviewing can be undertaken systemically. The systems practitioner in me is rearing its head! As Ray Ison once said to me – “research is a practice too” – words which I directly hold responsible for me doing a PhD in the first place [depending on the day I am having that may be blame or gratitude!]