Research Synthesis Toolkit
Systematic reviewing and meta-analysis incorporate numerous steps that are iterative and complex by nature. Knowing what tools are available to you can help put these steps into context. This page suggests some common tools that can be used as a part of your research synthesis toolkit. While this toolkit prioritizes free and low-cost tools, paid options are also suggested for those who have the resources to use them. As the field of research synthesis expands, so too does the range of tools and resources that are available to scientists. Over time, we aim to update this page with new information as those tools and resources become available.
Project Management Tools
Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software. George Mason University's Center for History and New Media developed the first version of Zotero in 2006 and have regularly updated the software into the present. It can be an incredibly useful tool for storing and organizing references that you identify through your systematic review's search strategy. Zotero is available for download onto your local device. There is also a browser application that you can use if you prefer not to download Zotero. However, using both the local download and browser application can greatly enhance the utility of Zotero for your systematic review. For example, the browser application lets you save references with just a click of a button using the Zotero Connector feature, which can be used to quickly update your Zotero library that is saved on your local device. Additionally, the browser version makes it easier to share reference files with a team, which is crucial component of the systematic review process.
Our Video Guides include a demonstration of the Zotero software. You can also visit the Zotero website by following this link: https://www.zotero.org/
EndNote is another reference management software that is used as the industry standard for research projects in academic and governmental institutions. Unlike Zotero, EndNote requires researchers to purchase a license to use the software. Institutions that use EndNote often have an institutional access license plan. This plan means that institutional affiliates (i.e. staff, faculty, students) do not need to purchase their own license to access and use EndNote. Using EndNote within an institutional context can have some benefits over free and open-source options when the other members of your research team also have institutional access to EndNote. This shared license can help facilitate file sharing and management during the literature searching stage of the process. Additionally, because EndNote is considered the industry standard in reference management, many college and university research libraries offer training sessions and tutorials on how to use EndNote for your project management needs.
Visit your local research library's website for more information on the trainings and tutorials available to you. You can also visit the EndNote website for a more information and a free, 30-day trial: https://endnote.com/
You can choose whichever software works best for your needs. One key benefit of both is that you can easily download your library of studies into an .RIS that can be read by and uploaded into most screening software tools.
Tools for Gathering Information
Rayyan is a free and open-source web application developed by Rayyan Systems. It can be used during the screening stage to conduct title, abstract, and full-text screening of primary studies. Rayyan facilitates the screening process using a text mining algorithm powered by artificial intelligence to identify studies relevant to your eligibility criteria. Its functions allows sharing of screening projects between members of your research team, and the results of a screening can be exported into various files for use in other steps of your systematic review and meta-analysis.
Our Video Guides provide a quick demonstration on using Rayyan for screening in a systematic review. Additionally, you can visit Rayyan's website for more information.
There are also paid software options for facilitating the screening process. These options have the benefit of being able to conduct title, abstract, and full-text screenings of the studies retrieved by your search strategy. Software that we are familiar with include Covidence, DistillerSR, and SysRev. The SysRev software in particular has integrations with the R statistical software that enhance the systematic review capabilities for scientists who are familiar with R and its functionality. Additionally, while SysRev also has a free version, the paid options provide increased functionality at a significantly lower cost than both Covidence and DistillerSR. These software can also be used for the data extraction process in preparation for meta-analysis. They can help to easily compile the statistical information needed to calculate the effect sizes that will form the basis of your meta-analytic modeling approaches. You can visit the Covidence, DistillerSR, and SysRev pages respectively by clicking on their corresponding links.
There is nothing wrong with using Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to guide your systematic review and meta-analysis. Many people prefer to use these tools because they tend to be free, ubiquitous, and have a minimal learning curve for new users -- which can be crucial when managing a research team with various experience levels in research synthesis.
Lastly! It's very important to document the results of your screening process. This communicates to reviewers and other synthesis researchers the decisions that were made when applying your eligibility criteria to your pool of studies. It helps to understand why and how studies were included or excluded from your review, as well as how you ended up with your final, analytic sample of studies. This enhances the reproducibility of your review and aligns it with open-science principles. The PRISMA Statement is considered a standard guideline for documenting the lifecycle of your pool of studies in a systematic review.
You can visit their website for information: http://www.prisma-statement.org/
Once you have gathered and compiled the information from your pool of studies that is relevant to your research question, you can re-assess if meta-analysis methods are an appropriate approach.
If you determine that a meta-analysis is appropriate, then you will need to begin familiarizing yourself with the statistical software that are available to you. There are specialized software that are dedicated solely to meta-analysis.
Additionally, software commonly used in quantitative data analysis may have "add-ons", "packages", or "macros" that allow them to conduct meta-analyses even if that is not an option in the base version of that software.
As you know, MMARI and MATI focus on the use of the R statistical software and its relevant packages for conducting meta-analysis.
The Video Guides and R Learning Resources pages of this website provide more detail in the use of R for meta-analysis.
However, we recognize that not all researchers have the time or resources to learn R for meta-analysis. As such, we have included a reference table highlighting the range of software that may provide meta-analysis functions.