Martin Westgate

Science Advisor
Atlas of Living Australia

Visiting Fellow
Fenner School of Environment & Society
Australian National University

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The difficulties of systematic reviews.

MJ Westgate & DB Lindenmayer (2017) Conservation Biology 10.1111/cobi.12890

First published 2017-01-02


The need for robust evidence to support conservation actions has driven the adoption of systematic approaches to research synthesis in ecology. However, applying systematic review to complex or open questions remains challenging, and this task is becoming more difficult as the quantity of scientific literature increases. We drew on the science of linguistics for guidance as to why the process of identifying and sorting information during systematic review remains so labor intensive, and to provide potential solutions. Several linguistic properties of peer-reviewed corpora - including nonrandom selection of review topics, small-world properties of semantic networks, and spatiotemporal variation in word meaning - greatly increase the effort needed to complete the systematic review process. Conversely, the resolution of these semantic complexities is a common motivation for narrative reviews, but this process is rarely enacted with the rigor applied during linguistic analysis. Therefore, linguistics provides a unifying framework for understanding some key challenges of systematic review and highlights 2 useful directions for future research. First, in cases where semantic complexity generates barriers to synthesis, ecologists should consider drawing on existing methods - such as natural language processing or the construction of research thesauri and ontologies - that provide tools for mapping and resolving that complexity. These tools could help individual researchers classify research material in a more robust manner and provide valuable guidance for future researchers on that topic. Second, a linguistic perspective highlights that scientific writing is a rich resource worthy of detailed study, an observation that can sometimes be lost during the search for data during systematic review or meta-analysis. For example, mapping semantic networks can reveal redundancy and complementarity among scientific concepts, leading to new insights and research questions. Consequently, wider adoption of linguistic approaches may facilitate improved rigor and richness in research synthesis.

Article attributes

Theme: evidence_synthesis
Type: essay