Guidelines for librarian involvement (academic staff)

Notice: Due to a large influx of requests, there may be an extended wait time for librarian support on knowledge syntheses.

Several organisations that fund or conduct systematic reviews (SR) recommend, if not require, having a librarian on the research team (IOMCochraneCIHRCampbell Collaboration). Due to the amount of time required to provide these services, and the need to respect course requirements, we offer different levels of service for academic staff and students. The following guidelines also apply for other types of knowledge syntheses such as scoping reviews, integrative reviews or realist reviews.

Timeline to complete a systematic review

According to the Cochrane Collaboration,  the time required to complete a systematic review varies widely.  Research teams should allow for an average of 12 months from initial consultation to production of final manuscript.

Using this service

If you are interested in using this service, please fill out this work plan form and submit it along with your protocol by email to your liaison librarian.

Outline of librarian involvement in the process

There are many steps to conducting a systematic review; more information about the process can be found on our guide.

Librarians may be involved in any or all of the following steps in the SR process:

  1. Formulate a suitable research question
  2. Check for the existence of published or in-process SR on the same topic
  3. * Design the search strategies and arrange for peer review
  4. Run searches in appropriate bibliographic databases
  5. Provide guidance on searching the grey literature
  6. Provide citations for all search results in agreed upon format
  7. * Participate in compiling the PRISMA flow diagram
  8. Re-run the search to retrieve newly published information
  9. * Write the methods section of the resulting manuscript
  10. * Review the final manuscript

A librarian who accepts responsibility for those steps marked with (*) above should be offered co-authorship of the final publication.  The librarian may accept or decline co-authorship at their discretion. Researchers conducting biomedical SRs may wish to consult the ICMJE statement on “Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors” for more information or clarification.

Memorandum of Understanding will be reviewed by the librarian and the researcher at the first meeting, to insure that both parties understand their responsibilities in the project. 

Overview of the process for the delivery of search results

Typically, the process of delivering search results for a systematic review involves:

  • Development of an initial strategy:

    • an initial consultation
    • development of an initial search strategy based on consultation and SR protocol (if available)
    • request of feedback from the research team
  • After receiving feedback the librarian will:

  • review feedback and ask clarifying questions
  • incorporate feedback and return the search strategy to the research team for final approval
  • translate the search to those databases previously agreed upon with the research team
  • Provide citations for search results in agreed upon format

A librarian will typically require 2 weeks to develop an initial search strategy. The timeline may vary depending on the complexity of the research question.  At later stages, further delays may occur depending on such factors as the number of databases considered necessary for the search or technical problems.  

Delays in this process, outside of the control of the librarian, such as delayed feedback from the research team and changes to the research question can further affect the originally agreed upon timeline.  In this event, it may be necessary for a new timeline to be agreed upon.  

If demand for systematic review searching is high it may be necessary for searches to be reassigned to another librarian.


Initial consultation

The purpose of the initial meeting is to:

  • Discuss and clarify the refined research question, which will be the basis of the SR

  • Establish that no relevant up-to-date SR of sufficient quality currently exists or is in process

  • Identify key articles

  • Discuss and determine:

    • search parameters such as inclusion/exclusion criteria and limits (language, publication date, etc.)
    • databases to be searched
    • inclusion of grey literature and other sources 
    • responsibilities for recording of numbers for PRISMA diagram
    • citation management software/strategy - and how will results will be passed to research team
  • Agree on timeline

The librarian will use a checklist to record the decisions made. The Memorandum of Understanding will be reviewed by the librarian and the researcher.


Preliminary search

Within a typical time period of 2 weeks, the librarian will:

  • Construct an initial exhaustive search strategy for one database

  • Send strategy to research team requesting feedback, along with sample (typically the first 100) search results


Feedback from research team

After receipt of the preliminary search strategy, the research team will:

  • Provide feedback on the strategy, indicating additional or unnecessary search terms

  • Indicate any articles of high relevancy identified in the initial sample of results

After receiving feedback from the research team, the librarian will:

  • Review the feedback, modify the search strategy as necessary, and

  • Return the revised search strategy to the research team for final approval

Please note: without feedback from the research team, the librarian will not be able to proceed with the SR search.


Translation to other databases and record keeping

Following final approval of the search strategy, the librarian will:

  • Translate the search strategy to the other databases agreed upon previously

  • Provide citations for search results in agreed upon format

  • Provide a copy of each search strategy employed during the searching process

  • Provide the information necessary for the PRISMA Diagram and the methods section, as outlined below


Citation management

  • EndNote is the default software used by McGill librarians for SRs
  • Librarians can work with research assistants for the delivery and deduplication of search results
  • On request, results can be provided as RIS files for export to other software as needed
  • Consult list of workshops
  • Specialized support available upon request


Searching of grey literature and other sources

Grey literature

Should a grey literature search be considered necessary, this would typically not be conducted by the librarian.  However, the librarian can suggest suitable sources and provide guidance on how to search these sources; this may include the provision of suggested search strategies for individual resources.

Citation searches

None will be conducted by the librarian.

Hand searching

None will be conducted by the librarian.

Contacting key individuals/organizations/companies in a subject area

None will be conducted by the librarian


Publication preparation

  • PRISMA Diagram: The librarian will be responsible for recording the initial number of articles retrieved from each and all databases, and the number of articles in the deduplicated library sent to the research team (depending on who does the deduplication).  The research team will be responsible for recording all other numbers.

  • Methods Section: The librarian will provide sections describing the search methodology for both the abstract and full text of the manuscript

  • Review final manuscript: As a co-author, the librarian will be given the opportunity to provide final sign-off for the manuscript.


Updating systematic reviews

As a systematic review may take many months, it is likely that any searches conducted by the librarian will need to be rerun in order to capture relevant articles published in the intervening period. The librarian will conduct these as necessary.

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