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Steps For Conducting A Lit Review

Testing a new medical device, for example, might involve searching biomedical, engineering, and even computer sciences databases. The objectives of the search are to demonstrate whether or not alternatives are available and, if so, why or why can they not be used. The legislation indicates that the investigator must provide a written narrative which demonstrates to the IACUC that alternatives, useful or not, were at least considered in the experimental design. The literature search is suggested as the best way to demonstrate this. The literature search if far less questionable than a check-off box or a sentence or two saying there are no alternatives written on the protocol form.

Spending another 10 to 20 h on the search may yield more relevant citations, but possibly only another 5% to 10%. Due to the very nature of research and publication, it is not realistic to expect to find 100% of relevant research on a topic, regardless of the amount of time spent. The law of diminishing returns and Pareto Principle (sometimes called the 80–20 rule) should be considered. In the case of a literature search that means continued searching in the same locations using the same techniques is not time well spent, simply because most of the relevant citations have already been found. A complete literature search can and should incorporate several resources. Resources for a literature search include Internet search engines, databases, and library catalogs.

It is also useful to understand why relevant articles may be missing from an initial search, as it produces a comparison grid of MeSH terms used to index each article . A number of frameworks can be used to break the review question into concepts. One such is the PICO framework, developed to answer clinical questions such as the effectiveness of a clinical intervention . It is noteworthy that ‘outcome’ concepts of the PICO framework are less often used in a search strategy as they are less well defined in the titles and abstracts of available literature . Although PICO is widely used, it is not a suitable framework for identifying key elements of all questions in the medical field, and minor adaptations are necessary to enable the structuring of different questions. Other frameworks exist that may be more appropriate for questions about health policy and management, such as ECLIPSE or SPICE for service evaluation .

Once you have your PICO question you can formulate a search strategy by identifying key words, synonyms and subject headings. If you see a particular article or author mentioned across several works, you may want to read a bit by this author. When doing a literature search, you want to incorporate as many influential texts on the subject as possible. For example, you may find around 40 good sources in a database search, but you may only be able to access 20 of those sources in the time frame you need.

Search the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials here.

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