systematic literature review FAIL!

What is a systematic literature review and why did I want to do one?

A systematic literature review is an attempt to locate, evaluate, and review all the scholarly literature that may answer a specific research question. As part of that effort, it is important to plan and test your search strategies before commencing and to keep a record of all the steps taken, should you or another researcher wish to test or replicate the review.
I wanted to do my own systematic literature review for two reasons: to better understand the processes of the review, and to gain some insight into a topic that intrigues me. My research question was: How do academic librarians understand and demonstrate caring in the online environment?

Why did it fail?

The short answer is that my enthusiasm and confidence plus a little desperation to make it work led me to proceed without the checks and balances I would usually make. But these are weasel words…

But why did it fail?

There are many reasons the review failed, here are the ones I have identified:

  1. An element of my topic just does not lend itself to systematic search techniques. That is the element of ‘caring.’ Many, many of the search terms I used are homographs: they are spelled the same as words with a different meaning. For example, I included the word affect in my search string, thinking of the sense of how one expresses emotion. Of course, affect also means to change the state of something (affect/effect) and is a very common word.
  2. The word caring itself is problematic. I included the term caring to describe the transpersonal element of sharing emotional states. But it turns out librarians are out there caring for books, collections, libraries, communities, careers, and a multitude of other things unrelated to my topic.
  3. There are too many ‘known unknowns’ about my topic that also affect (😊) a systematic search. I have heard of care theory and nonviolent communication and logotherapy but I’m guessing there would be many other theories and perspectives that librarians are working from that I don’t know.
  4. I compromised my search and wasted a lot of time by not using sufficient limiters. I should have limited some aspects of my search to title/abstract/keywords but this led to very few results and so I searched the full text of all articles: BAD Librarian, Rowena! Very bad!!
  5. It turns out that my topic was too narrow. Twenty-two articles, most of which mentioned caring in passing does not provide enough substance for a systematic literature review.
  6. I did not set aside enough time. Professor Catherine Pickering, expert on systematic literature reviews suggests 3 months, full time is a reasonable amount of time. I had 4 weeks, part-time but thought I knew better. I didn’t. This is a painstaking and time-consuming business.
  7. Impacting on the timeline issue, technology has not been my friend. EndNote imported about 2/3rds of my articles with full text, leaving me to search for 90 odd articles myself. A temporary glitch between Google Scholar and my university library slowed me down until I subscribed to Kopernio (a button you add to your browser that automatically searches for the full text of articles). But I still had to cut and paste all those article titles one by one to search them… and about a third of those needed to be found by locating the journal title in the library catalogue and navigating to the article via volume and issue details. What a colossal pain in the you-know-what.

A load of pain – What did I gain?

Despite not achieving what I set out to do, I gained a lot from this process in terms of better understanding the systematic literature review process, and information on my topic.

What do I now know about systematic literature reviews?

I believe having experienced the excitement, confusion, frustration, the dawning realisation that it’s not going to work but pushing ahead anyway, the disappointment, the resignation of it all, I am now in a much better place to support my research clients – a good thing as I in the process of creating a resource guide to be completed early 2019. My advice would still be that setting yourself up to succeed seems to be the most important thing. Test the searches. Test them properly to make sure what you need is in there. Make sure that an SLR is a suitable research method for your topic before wasting time. But I can now be a little more emphatic about that!
My technical skills have been sharpened too. I can whizz around parts of EndNote that I had only peeped at before. I got a little practice with using Excel to make some charts as well (where the articles were published etc.) This will all come in handy.

What do I now know about academic librarians and caring?

That’s an interesting thing. I strongly believe that librarians, even academic ones do care for their clients, do feel for them but it seems no one is talking much about this in the scholarly literature. Does it seem too trivial to write about? Do we fear not looking professional? Is it just that no one has started the conversation yet? I am more interested in this question than I was before…

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