CILIPS Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
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Providing search support for a systematic review on a complex public health topic

This case study is part of Health Librarians Add Value, a campaign run jointly by NHS Education for Scotland (NES) and CILIPS. It has been provided by Gillian Armour, Pubic Health Librarian at Public Health Scotland. Read other case studies here.

About the project

Knowledge Services were approached in 2019 with a request to support a systematic review on “Assessing the macro-level political, economic and social mechanisms that can deliver an inclusive economy”. This support was requested by the Scottish Public Health Observatory (ScotPHO), part of Public Health Scotland (PHS). The subject of the systematic review, inclusive economy, was in response to Public Health Priority 5: A Scotland where we have a sustainable, inclusive economy with equality of outcomes for all.

The systematic review search support work began in April 2020, following on from an earlier ‘scoping search’, also carried out by PHS Knowledge Services, which had allowed the lead authors to determine search terms and phrases to identify evidence to support a comprehensive review of reviews. A search protocol was decided between the authors and the librarian and a trial and error approach was adopted in developing a long and complex search strategy to be run across a wide variety of databases.
Challenges included deciding on the best use of search terms in order to search the databases comprehensively without generating unmanageable sets of results. Even so, the final searches resulted in 20,000 articles taken forward to the screening stage, requiring full use of bibliographic reference management and review software such as Refworks and Covidence for deduplication.

Accurate documentation of the search strategies, and careful record-keeping of the results in table form and via a PRISMA diagram, was necessary to ensure that processes could be scrutinised at the peer-review stage.

An additional learning point was the identification of a gap in our access to bibliographic databases covering the field of economics. Public health includes many topic areas outside the fields of health and social care which our NHS Scotland national database subscriptions centre on. A subscription to EconLit was procured to fill this gap which will be useful when carrying out further work in relation to economics and health inequalities.


The below quote from a service user demonstrates how important this work has been:

The Knowledge Services team were very helpful with the design and conduct of our systematic review. Upon submitting our request to them, we had a specific librarian assigned to our project. In our onboarding meeting, she advised and worked collaboratively with us to identify relevant databases and search terms. In a reiterative process, she helped us run pilot searches and refine our search strategy. Having her expertise in identifying relevant databases, adapting search terms to different databases as well as documenting the search process was particularly valuable.

Reflecting on the work and her part in it, Librarian Gillian Armour said:

Having supported systematic reviews previous to this work, I had learned from these experiences to be clear with the lead authors on all criteria involved in the search strategy at the early stages, to avoid difficulties at a later stage that could require quite complex resolutions. I found that on this occasion, I was more confident in my ability to support the work and advise the lead authors. I also found that I gained more insight into the capabilities of each database which will be useful when supporting work of this nature in the future.

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