Celebrating 10 Years of Systematic Reviews at Holman Biotech Commons

Four Holman Biotech Commons Librarians on the Systematic Review team pose for a photograph during a December 2022 celebration commemorating the 10 year anniversary of SRs at Penn

2022 marked the ten-year anniversary of the Systematic Review (SR) service at Holman Biotech Commons. Though they are similar to a traditional literature review, SRs have a more comprehensive search strategy and rigorous methodology. SRs also require that users carefully document the process, which helps to eliminate bias and ensure reproducibility.  

Over the last decade, the systematic review service has become one of Holman Biotech Commons’ most in-demand services. One reason to explain their rise in popularity may be the simple fact that SRs provide a high level of evidence: their comprehensive search strategy enables researchers to critically assess all relevant materials. Furthermore, the explicit methodology of SRs decreases the likelihood of bias. These two aspects of SRs have helped them to become the gold standard for evidence in the health sciences.  

Besides a reputation for quality, why do library users seek out our SR services? SRs are important tools in the healthcare community that have been used for a variety of purposes, including: 

  • Creating or redefining healthcare policy and clinical guidelines  
  •  Developing new programs and services  
  •  Preparing grant proposals  
  •  Identifying either gaps in research or potential areas for new research   

Developing the SR service at Holman Biotech Commons

The SR service at Penn had its origins in 2011 when the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) released the report “Finding What Works in Healthcare: Standards for Systematic Reviews.” The report defines best practices for SRs, including a recommendation that each SR project collaborate with a qualified librarian.  

While researchers have strong subject knowledge, they may lack the skills for capturing all relevant evidence from a massive volume of literature scattered across databases, which is essential for completing systematic review. Because librarians are experts in these areas, the collaboration between researchers and librarians creates added value to SR projects.  

When the report was released in 2011, Holman Biotech Commons leaders were aware the landscape was shifting and there was a great opportunity for a new partnership between the libraries and researchers in the Penn health sciences communities. Maylene Qiu, who was hired as clinical liaison librarian in that year, joined the call and made tremendous efforts in building the systematic review service. The first phase in the development process was equipping librarians with the knowledge necessary to assist with SRs. This stage of development also required much experimentation to determine what worked and what did not work for the service.

Because the National Academy of Medicine set up a high standard for SR, participating librarians are required to devote significant time on an SR project, ranging from several months to years to complete a project. This feature of the service naturally created challenges for the library to scale up and sustain the service. 

As the number of SR requests grew dramatically, expanding the SR service capacity by adding additional librarians to the team became necessary. Therefore, phase two of development focused on team building. Qiu created a case-based and paired-up training program to help the members master the basic knowledge and gain experience. 

The third phase of development was to standardize the process by establishing written policies and guidelines to ensure the quality and the consistency of the service. Having written policies in place also enabled the SR team to scale up the service. These written policies, combined with word of mouth, helped to spread awareness of the SR service among the Penn community. 

Now with more librarians, the SR team could not only tackle more requests, but they were also able to expand upon their services. The team began to offer the Penn community SR training workshops, citation management services, and other tools to help manage research, including data screening and data extraction software.  

Although SRs began in the health sciences, their popularity has spread to other fields due to their rigorous methodology and high quality. Indeed, beginning around 2018, SR librarians began to take note of occasional SR requests from other disciplines, such as business and the social sciences. If the SR team was to successfully meet the needs of users from other fields, then the team would need to expand once again–this time with librarians from other disciplines. Today, there are 17 Penn librarians trained on SR services, with librarian specialists in fields such as dental, veterinary medicine, business, social sciences, and communications.  

The secret to its success

There have been those who have questioned the role that librarians will hold in a future where information is increasingly discovered and accessed online. SRs demonstrate the important role that qualified librarians continue to play in academia. As of October 2022, the SR team has received over 3,500 requests for SR services since the founding of the team. In the year 2012, the team assisted with two advanced SR projects; in 2022, the team assisted with 70 advanced SR projects–a whopping 3,400% increase. 

Systematic Review Coordinator Maylene Qiu uses the triple helix model of innovation to help explain the success of the SR service here at Penn. In this framework, a set of interactions between academia, government, and industry work together to foster innovation and development. In this case, the National Academy of Medicine (government) published the report standardizing SRs; Penn researchers (academia), understanding the value of SRs, sought out the expertise of librarians; while publishers (industry) desired SR reviews for publication due to their high quality and their tendency for frequent citation. These three factors working together helped to propel the demand for SRs.  

Next steps

What does the future hold for the SR service at Penn? One librarian foresees the demand for the SR service to continue to grow as research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary. One such example is AI surgery–an exciting field in which engineering and medicine intersect. The SR team has already begun working with engineering librarians to support SRs, and librarians expect other such interdisciplinary research projects to continue. 

Congratulations to the Systematic Review team on ten successful years!  

For more information on Systematic Reviews, visit the Systematic Review LibGuide.

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