Planning Your Systematic Review to Reduce Screening Pain

When planning a systematic review project, are you building in time to pilot your screening forms? Project teams are often eager to begin reviewing citations as soon as possible and may overlook this important step in the process. However, investing time earlier in the project can save you from wasted time and headaches down the road.

Developing screening forms may seem like a small part of a systematic review project, but the forms should be thoughtfully developed to allow the review process to be as efficient as possible. The development and testing of forms can begin as soon as your protocol is finalized, and should start no later than when your project librarian begins to build the literature searches.

Start by thinking about how to translate your inclusion and exclusion criteria into simple, answerable questions, and remember that your team will initially have only an article’s title and abstract to use in answering those questions. A second round of questions, used when full-text articles are available to your team, can screen for more detailed information not likely to be contained in an abstract.

Once you have a draft of your screening questions, ask your librarian for references to use to test the flow of your screening process and the transparency of your questions. If you are using DistillerSR for your project, this is a great time to make an appointment with a Distiller librarian at Distiller Ask-a-Librarian.

Does this seem like overkill? During the pilot process, teams can make adjustments to forms and questions that will save them a lot of time when reviewing records. For example, a question that initially seems very clear to a project leader may be very confusing to junior members, and might be improved by re-wording or adding explanatory information. Imagine discovering this issue a month into screening, possibly necessitating the rescreening of hundreds of records! Planning a pilot test of your systematic review screening forms can potentially save you a lot of time and effort. If you need assistance with the process, please contact your librarian.

~Rose L. Turner and Mary Lou Klem