Organization is key to build a good research. Whatever its output maybe – a report, a review, a thesis, an article, etc.. – the whole research methodology is likely to be perceived just by the way the document is presented and organized. It is not unusual that researchers – mostly science rookies – get overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to deal with and find themselves plunged into a down spiral of doubts and stress, losing their focus on what kind of document they initially decided to produce. Therefore, it is essential to keep positivism and concentration, identifying fundamental steps and procedures common to every research process and its delivery format. Some of these stages may be difficult to define or be separated from others that look quite similar. That is the case with systematic review and meta-analysis, which we will carefully define below.
Starting with what both have in common: they are actually two research methods that can complement each other. Systematic reviews and meta-analysis are considered to result into very reliable findings – systematic reviews more than meta-analysis – because they are based in high-quality, filtered evidence on a research topic. For example, they support themselves on expert reviews rather than case-controlled studies, case series or mere opinions.
What is a Systematic Review?
A Systematic Review is a form of research by collecting, appraising and synthesizing evidence to answer a particular question, in a very transparent and systematic way. Data (or evidence) used in systematic reviews have origin in scholarly literature – published or unpublished–, so its findings are of extreme reliability; plus, they are normally collated and appraised by an independent panel of experts in the field. Unlike traditional reviews, systematic reviews are very comprehensive and don’t rely on a single author’s point of view, thus avoiding bias.
They are specially important in the medical field, for example, where doctors need to be constantly up-to-date with new, high-quality information to lead their daily decisions. Also, systematic reviews can be a way of avoiding new primary studies, as they collect information from previous research and take new, more comprehensive, conclusions upon them. They can even help identify lack of evidence or knowledge limitations, suggesting, consequently, the undertaking of a new primary study if needed.
Why are systematic reviews important?
- They combine and synthesize various studies and their findings;
- They appraise the validity of the results and finding of the collected studies in an impartial way;
- They define clear objectives and reproducible methodologies.
What is a Meta-analysis?
This form of research relies on combining statistical results from two or more existing studies. Unlike systematic reviews, meta-analysis deal with numerical data and may be included in the first but otherwise cannot be done. On the other hand, just like systematic reviews, meta-analysis depends on the scientist’s focus on answering the research main question on the cost of undefined and/or unreliable findings. In other words, it may be difficult to combine very different studies: imagine your research is about the influence of the Mediterranean diet on diabetic people between 30 and 45 years old but you only find a study about the Mediterranean diet in healthy people and another about the Mediterranean diet in diabetic teenagers. In this case, undertaking a meta-analysis would probably be a poor choice; either the scientist pursues the idea of comparing such material and achieves findings that don’t really answer his review question or he decides to jump into alternative research methods (of qualitative nature), which can produce another kind of more appropriate data.
Why is meta-analysis important?
- They help improve precision about evidence since many studies are too small to provide convincing data;
- They can settle divergencies between conflicting studies; by formally assessing the conflicting study results, it is possible to eventually reach new hypotheses and explore the reasons for controversy;
- They can answer questions with a broader influence than individual studies: for example, the effect of a disease on several populations across the world, by comparing other smaller research made in specific countries or continents.
Undertaking research approaches like systematic reviews and/or meta-analysis are of great responsibility. They provide reliable information that has real impact on society. Elsevier offers a number of services that aim to help researchers achieve excellence in written text, suggesting the necessary amendments to fit them into a target formatting. A perfectly written text, whether translated or edited from a manuscript, is the key to be respected and considered in the scientific community, leading to more and more important positions like, let’s say… being part of an expert panel leading a systematic review or a widely acknowledged meta-analysis.
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