Synthesizing review articles identify, evaluate, and synthesize available research and form a cornerstone of evidence based practice. A common characteristic of synthesizing reviews (SR) is their basis in a transparent, thorough identification of the relevant literature, and for this reason, the inclusion of a librarian or other information professional as part of the review team is typically included in the methodological standard. Research in the health sciences has documented that reporting of reproducible search strategies is often poor in published SR and that librarian involvement positively impacts the quality. Although SR are increasingly being adopted within the field of social work, little is known about the scale or quality of the SR. This study investigates 1) The types of SR being published in social work; 2) Whether the reviews follow established guidelines for reporting the literature search; 3) Whether the quality of reported searches supports evidence synthesis
We reviewed published, peer-reviewed systematic and related synthesizing reviews published between 2010-2017 in social work, identified via searches of Social Work Abstracts, Scopus and Web of Science. Synthesizing methods were inclusive of both qualitative and quantitative methods, including systematic review, meta-analysis, scoping review, meta-synthesis of qualitative studies (e.g., meta-ethnography, qualitative interpretive meta-synthesis) and mixed methods.
1,095 non-duplicate articles were screened at the title and abstract level using the free Rayyan software (https://rayyan.qcri.org). 333 articles matching inclusion criteria were retrieved in full-text, and coded. Data extracted included the type of study, the level of acknowledged librarian involvement, common search errors, and whether the article published included enough information to reasonably infer a reproducible search. 157 articles met this criteria. Further analysis was performed on these studies regarding the quality of search, using an instrument derived from the Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) instrument.
Results and practical implications
Reporting of search strategies is poor, with over half of the reviews including insufficient information to be reproducible. Evaluating the quality of search strategies among the different types of synthesizing reviews in social work proved to be much more challenging than prior attempts in the biomedical sciences, even when done by experienced librarians. Of the analyzed searches, quality varied greatly, with many being inadequate for the purpose. Few studies report involvement of a librarian.
Conclusions and implications
Adherence to guidelines for reporting literature searches is generally poor, compromising the reproducibility of systematic and related reviews in social work. When searches were adequately reported there were frequently quality issues of the search with implications for the quality of the review and conclusions regarding the evidence. More research and instrument development is needed for understanding how to reliably evaluate search strategies in social work, given the diversity of types of synthesizing reviews in the field.