Eight problems with literature reviews and how to fix them

An Author Correction to this article was published on 19 October 2020

This article has been updated

Abstract

Traditional approaches to reviewing literature may be susceptible to bias and result in incorrect decisions. This is of particular concern when reviews address policy- and practice-relevant questions. Systematic reviews have been introduced as a more rigorous approach to synthesizing evidence across studies; they rely on a suite of evidence-based methods aimed at maximizing rigour and minimizing susceptibility to bias. Despite the increasing popularity of systematic reviews in the environmental field, evidence synthesis methods continue to be poorly applied in practice, resulting in the publication of syntheses that are highly susceptible to bias. Recognizing the constraints that researchers can sometimes feel when attempting to plan, conduct and publish rigorous and comprehensive evidence syntheses, we aim here to identify major pitfalls in the conduct and reporting of systematic reviews, making use of recent examples from across the field. Adopting a ‘critical friend’ role in supporting would-be systematic reviews and avoiding individual responses to police use of the ‘systematic review’ label, we go on to identify methodological solutions to mitigate these pitfalls. We then highlight existing support available to avoid these issues and call on the entire community, including systematic review specialists, to work towards better evidence syntheses for better evidence and better decisions.

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Fig. 1: Schematic showing the main stages necessary for the conduct of a systematic review as defined by the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence.

Change history

  • 19 October 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Shortall from Rothamstead Research for useful discussions on the topic.

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N.R.H. developed the manuscript idea and a first draft. All authors contributed to examples and edited the text. All authors have read and approve of the final submission.

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Correspondence to Neal R. Haddaway.

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S.S. is a co-founder of Liljus ltd, a firm that provides research services in sustainable finance as well as forest conservation and management. The other authors declare no competing interests.

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Examples of literature reviews and common problems identified.

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Haddaway, N.R., Bethel, A., Dicks, L.V. et al. Eight problems with literature reviews and how to fix them. Nat Ecol Evol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01295-x

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