Understanding the Structure and Purpose of Systematic Reviews

Defining systematic review:

A systematic review is a well-planned literature review that basically answers a focused research problem, with pre-defined inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Steps involved in systematic review:

The first step involved in drafting a systematic review is identification of the REAL research problem. For this you need to search for valid literatures dealing with your subject area and locate the research gaps in those studies. This will assist you in devising an appropriate research question. In general, researchers use the PICO framework to define the question scope. Its anatomic parts are as follows:

P-Problem/Population

I-Intervention

C-Comparison, and

O-Outcome

The second step involves setting the inclusion and exclusion criteria that will further determine which studies are you going to include in the systematic review. Here are few parameters that are taken into consideration while zeroing down on a relevant study:

– Population

– Study design

– Type of intervention

– Grouping

– Outcomes of the study, and so on.

Thirdly, you need to carry out the real work of spotting out those inclusive studies by taking help of databases, such as online libraries, online searches, and so on. Then simply insert this retrieved information into a reference manager, such as EndNote, Cite This For Me, Reference Generator, and so on.

The next approach will be to extract data from these studies by using a tool, software or excel sheet. This will assist the researcher in evaluating the study bias if any. For this, you can use a risk of bias tool, such as Cochrane tool, for assessment of potential study or sample bias.

Finally, the results have to be presented along with the methodology section, which includes the criteria of selection, strategies, and so on. A meta-analysis is done, if necessary. Future recommendations can also be cited in this section, regarding any change in the policy or clinical/non-clinical practice.

In this blog, we have tried to summarize the complete process of writing a systematic review in a uncomplicated manner, and along with this, we have also tried to explain the quality elements included in each step of systematic review.

Modern Research and its Associated Problems

The Research Issues
Modern research has played a significant role in solving life’s mysteries, and has, paradoxically, sometimes added to them, a la the test tube baby and human cloning. With the advent of time, scientists will delve deeper to deliver landmark results in many areas, such as discovering cures for hitherto untreatable diseases, or preventing a cyclone before it causes damage. We can visualize technologically innovative energy sources and their futuristic applications like manipulating the external environment to sustain life on the Moon. Research is an integral part of human activity and is affected by all the factors that have a bearing on human beings in any way. However, amid all such advancements and applications, it is also critically important to recognize the hurdles in the path of modern-day research, and to find solutions to improve future researches.

The Research Issues:

  • Practical problems: The problems faced by modern-day research are usually practical ones, such as devising ways and means to increase energy supply to meet the global demand or eliminate environmental pollutants.
  • Ethical issues: In course of their work, researchers are often confronted with certain ethical implications, especially those associated with experiments involving human genetic manipulation, critical organ transplantation, and so on.
  • Challenges for young researchers: Research contracts are generally short-term, which are granted for a period of 3-4 years. This discourages in-depth research on any research problem as it becomes difficult for young and ambitious researchers to present a detailed and satisfying result in the research paper. This builds up enormous academic stress on many talented budding researchers.
  • PhD programs do not help much:  PhD programs offer limited opportunity to the students to equip themselves with the training necessary for pursuing a career beyond the academia. As a result, the number of PhD students graduating every year stands at a new high, but limited academic posts are available for them.
  • Project funding: Due to the overflowing number of grant applications and research proposals, most of them are rejected by the funders. As a case in point, NIH (National Institutes of Health), which funds biomedical research, has reduced its acceptance rate to 18.3% since 2015.
  • Career prospects: A large proportion of researchers will not be able to secure a coveted faculty position in their chosen field of research due to overcrowding of PhD scholars. There is no strict definition for a post-doctoral researcher position, and the job titles often range from employee to associate, trainee, and student. No proper employee status, salary, and other benefits are being provided to the researchers. In addition to this, parental leave is completely subject to the wish of the supervisor. This seems to be a highly prevalent problem in the Indian context. A post-doctoral position is not really a typical job, but only a transitional position. What you aim to gain from such a position depends on the stage of life you are in, the year of your research, etc. Invariably, a re-evaluation is needed each year.
  • Reproducibility crisis: Previously, researchers used to carry out experiments on any existing study outcome for reproduction, with the objective of validating the findings. But modern research is facing an acute reproducibility crisis because of the indifference shown by funding agencies toward such researches. Usually, they prefer to support new or innovative researches. Even research journals are reluctant to publish such studies. Such studies are only entertained in cases where the outcome contradicts the old findings. Often, the low sample size or the poor study design of the old study impedes researchers in replicating the study results.
  • Publication bias: Due to the accelerating publication pressure, scientists are forced to produce flashy results that will enable their paper to get through the editorial peer review process for publication. However, all research papers are not published; only those with a unique conclusion or positive results get through for publication.
  • Citing negative results or selective reporting: Most research journals today have a high rejection rate (nearly 90%). This implies that only papers with the most distinctive findings make it to publication. During the 1990s, 30% of the published papers cited negative results; they have now drastically reduced to 14%. This reflects the apathy of publishers toward researches with negative results and their predilection for positive results. Even project funding affects what the researchers study and publish. Yet, knowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true.
  • Plagiarism: Plagiarism refers to the practice of affiliating someone else’s work to one’s own and using the findings as one’s own. With short-term projects and constricted timelines, researchers are now opting for this dangerous shortcut to present their paper. However, plagiarism is not at all acceptable in any form and is considered a serious breach of professional conduct, which may lead to legal as well as ethical consequences.
  • Paywall research: The gateways for disseminating research findings have also been a major reason of dissatisfaction among the research community. The subscription charges of paywalled publishers like Elsevier run up to $10,000 or $20,000 a year. This renders them beyond the reach of many researchers. In fact, some scientists pay the charges from their salary as they do not have a budget allocation for such expenditure.

These are some deleterious issues that have plagued the very essence of research.

Research problem: A statement of intent

Research problem: A statement of intent
How do I devise my research problem?

A research problem is a statement based on the area of research, which is the first step in a research process. Devising an appropriate research problem depends on the in-depth knowledge, skills, and expertise of a researcher in their particular subject field. Therefore, a researcher needs to devote considerable time to select a suitable research problem.

Steps to formulate a research problem

There are two essential steps to follow while selection:

  • Identification of a research problem
  • Selection of a broad research topic and narrowing it down to a precise statement.

Sources to derive a research problem

Several factors, both extraneous and intrinsic to the research per se, help the researcher in identifying a research problem. They include the following:

  • Field conditions: The rich experiences in the field provide relevant ideas for developing an apt research problem.
  • Personal experience: This might help generate new ideas for formulating the research problem.
  • Previous related researches and theories, and critical review of the available literature: Relevant questions might crop up in our mind when we evaluate the articles, reports and reviews related to the subject area.
  • Expert advice: Subject matter experts are vastly experienced in the field of study. Hence, they may help the researcher find the current problem related to the research, and even devise a research problem.

What should be the nature of the research problem?

There are several guidelines that need to be followed while selecting a research problem. Your research problem needs to be:

  • An original and unique one.
  • An encapsulation of the nature of research.
  • Feasible vis-a-vis time required for its completion.
  • A realistic statement that can be achieved with the available financial resources.
  • Backed by support from your affiliated institution and peers.
  • Formulated in accordance with ethical considerations.
  • Based on recent or current problems persistent in the field of study.

Types of research problems

Research problems can vary according to the field of study and the scope of the research. Basically, there are three types of research problems:

  • Descriptive
  • Relative
  • Casual

A well-framed and appropriate research problem presents the researcher’s view in a clear and lucid manner, and helps readers understand the purpose of the research better.