The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) (2016) defines knowledge syntheses as: "'the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic. A synthesis must be reproducible and transparent in its methods, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods." In other words, “knowledge synthesis” refers to types of literature reviews that follow an a priori project plan, called a protocol, to systematically collect the literature on a given topic, evaluate its suitability through a rigorous screening process, and synthesize in a manner appropriate to the included study types. Common knowledge synthesis methods include systematic reviews, scoping reviews, rapid reviews, meta-analyses, realist reviews, narrative reviews, among others.
Although knowledge synthesis methods such as systematic reviews and meta-analyses emerged primarily in the health sciences, they are gaining in speed in the social sciences and fields such as education. The chart below shows a general trend in the publication of meta-analyses and systematic and scoping reviews indexed in ERIC and Education Source, two key academic databases in the field of education.
Common knowledge synthesis methods include systematic reviews, scoping reviews, rapid reviews, meta-analyses, realist reviews, narrative syntheses, and many others types of reviews. Methods most commonly used in the field of education include scoping reviews, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses. Researchers should review each method carefully to determine which (if any) best suits their particular research question(s). The two links below point to guides that will help you understand and explore which method might work for you.
All knowledge synthesis projects are comprised of a series of stages, which can be generally summarized as follows:
Librarian researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, have produced an excellent video about Conducting Systematic Reviews, which is an excellent overview of the process also a very relevant resource for all knowledge synthesis methods (26 mins).
Note: The step list above is adapted from the McGill University Library guide on Systematic Reviews, Scoping Reviews, and other Knowledge Syntheses.
Researchers conducting knowledge synthesis projects must ensure that their studies adhere to an established set of standards and guidelines in structuring and reporting methods uses. For example, the PRISMA Guidelines (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) provide a minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
It is highly recommended that researchers determine whether a review has already been completed on their topic before proceeding. Searching for knowledge syntheses can be done in academic databases such as ERIC or Education Source. Additionally, there are some excellent databases dedicated to the collection of systematic, scoping and other reviews types in various fields.
The Cochrane Collaboration is an international, not-for-profit organization that aims to help people make well-informed decisions about health care by preparing, maintaining and promoting the accessibility of systematic reviews of the effects of health-care interventions. The Cochrane Library contains existing systematic reviews and the Cochrane Handbook provides guidelines for conducting systematic reviews.
The EPPI-Centre is based in the Social Science Research Unit in the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. The EPPI is a specialist centre for: (i) developing methods for systematic reviewing and synthesis of research evidence; and (ii) developing methods for the study of the use research.
Located at the Institute of Education in London, the MDRC is a database of reviews of educational interventions, located at the Centre for Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice in Education.
Run by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education, What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) was established in 2002. The goal of the WWC is “to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question “What works in education?””
Faculty members embarking on a knowledge synthesis project are welcome to book a one-on-one or team consultation with an OISE librarian to discuss the search component of their project. Librarians have experience to help:
The Systematic and Scoping Review Collaboration (SSRC) connects University of Toronto researchers who would like to partner with librarians as co-authors in the planning, execution and writing of knowledge syntheses studies. Learn more who can use the SSRC, and what projects are eligible. Please note that the SSRC is only available for faculty members and not graduate students. It is also dependent on the availability of librarians to participate in the research.
Graduate students members embarking on a knowledge synthesis project are welcome to book a consultation with a librarian to discuss the search component of their project. Librarians have experience to help:
The University of Toronto Libraries has subscriptions to several software tools that may assist in your knowledge synthesis project. Please note that librarians do not provide Covidence or NVivo support, but we are happy to discuss citation management software tools with you.
Citation management software is vital in the data collection stage of knowledge synthesis projects. It can help you save time by allowing you to collect citations from online databases and library catalogues; organize, edit, and search through the citations you've saved; de-duplicate articles, and share your citations and collaborate with colleagues on projects. There are many citation management options to choose from and you can find an excellent Citation Management Guide here.
Covidence software is designed to facilitate knowledge synthesis at the screening stage. The University of Toronto Libraries provides free subscriptions for current faculty, students, and staff. Request a Covidence account here.
NVivo software is designed to facilitate qualitative data analysis. It can also be used at the analysis stage of a knowledge synthesis project to examine and code themes in your data set. The University of Toronto Libraries provides free subscriptions for current faculty, students, and staff. Request and NVivo account here.
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