Systematic Review Organization for Librarians

Do you ever find that sometimes it’s the most practical information that we often fail to share or teach?

As a librarian designing search strategies for systematic reviews and supporting review teams for over two years now basically as a full-time job, I feel like I’ve finally streamlined things. The processes that I’ve developed make planning, executing, and reporting the search strategy for a systematic review really straightforward – but it wasn’t always this way. Everything I use is based on trial and error, and in speaking with other librarians. 

Knowing that this kind of uber practical stuff isn’t often shared online, I figured I’d put some of it up in the hopes that maybe some of you might find it useful, or better yet, generate discussion and maybe sharing of your own tools or processes you use to keep things organized (email meeee!).

For starters I figured I’d begin with the core working document that I use basically from day one, and which absolutely saves my butt every time we roll around to manuscript writing time, because it contains every conceivable detail and thought process throughout the search strategy design:

Systematic Review Project Notes Template for Librarians 

Creative Commons License
Systematic Review Project Notes Document by Sarah Visintini is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Way I Use this Form:

Team & Project Information

Basically how I use this thing is I keep all the research group and project information at the top, along with any key decision items, so that: a) I don’t have to go digging through emails to see what we ended up deciding on or b) so that I’m not constantly asking them what databases they have considered or review management software they want to use.

When I’m juggling lots of systematic reviews at the same time keeping them all straight from memory alone can be challenging, and I rely on this section of the document to help me re-immerse myself in the important details of the project, either when I’m ready to have another crack at the search strategy design, or in preparation for a meeting with the investigators.

Databases Table

This table remains empty for the majority of the time that I’m working on this document, but I like to keep it at the top so that when I come back to these notes to write the search methods section, most of my key information is front and centre. I also like to copy and paste this table into my final search results email with researchers so that they have a lot of the core information regarding what databases were run and when for their own records.

Search Strategy Design

This is probably the messiest section and has most of my testing and ideas popped in. I don’t usually use this section much after the fact (favouring the search histories and databases table for the majority of my write up) but it doesn’t hurt either.

Relevant Systematic Reviews

This isn’t reflected in the document but this is a new section I have recently started adding to prompt me to make sure I search for any reviews on the same topic in case the topic has been scooped or there is overlap, as well as to have a tidy place to list out some of the search strategies others have used for similar (but not significantly overlapping) topics. So for example if I was conducting a systematic review on X and Y I would have two subcategories here where I’d copy and paste some good search strategies for X and some good ones for Y so that I could make a beautiful Frankenbaby search and ensure I wasn’t missing any good terms.

Target Articles

Any articles that the team provide to me as being “target articles”/”pearls”/”definite includes” go in this section. Often I will have them in a variety of formats (in a reference list, in a PubMed PMID list for search testing, or in the Ovid Medline .ui. chain – again for search testing). If I end up finding some additional articles that the team deems include-worthy I will also add these here, usually with most current at the top, so that I always know that I am using the latest list of target articles.


I obviously don’t include everything here, but if there were any decision points in the emails I exchange between myself and the researchers I like to paste them in here for reference so that I can just skim the essentials rather than digging through email threads. This has actually saved me  when I went back to write search methods for a review after having moved to a new position – I had lost all my old emails but still had the salient details in my project notes.

Search Histories

Arguably the most important part of the document, I copy and paste my search history every time I search a database for the project. Typically by the end of a search strategy design process there will be between 5 and 15 entries here by date and database, so that if I have any doubts or questions I can go back through my process and look at what my searches were pulling in. On particularly tricky searches or when I’m testing out a lot of stuff, I’ll often leave myself notes using the Comments features in Word. This has actually come in handy a number of times when either peer reviewers or researchers have asked, “Have you thought of using term….?” and saves me time duplicating tests I’ve already conducted.

Happy systematic searching!

MLA CE: Advanced Searching Techniques and Advanced Strategy Design

Wow, what a rush! It’s already been a month since the MLA/CHLA/ABSC/ICLC Mosaic Conference wrapped up in Toronto and my head is still buzzing.

Besides getting to meet a whole host of incredibly cool and interesting medical librarians (more on that later, if I can muster the blogging muscle), I also had the privilege to attend one of the pre-conference continuing education sessions “Advanced Searching Techniques and Advanced Strategy Design” led by Julie Glanville and Carol Lefebvre.

If those names sound familiar to you, it’s because they are involved in all sorts of really interesting work in the systematic searching world. You may have seen their names in the Cochrane Handbook, on the ISSG Search Filters Resource website, or in CADTH’s PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies: 2015 Guideline Explanation and Elaboration. It was kind of funny really, I had recognized their names on the CE materials, and frequently use ALL of these resources, but didn’t put it all together until the session itself (needless to say, I was pretty star struck when all the puzzle pieces came together).

The session was broken up into four main components: search term identification, identifying, choosing and using search filters, search strategy structure, and peer review of complex search strategies.

Search Term Identification

During this part of the session, we discussed what techniques we used to get a search rolling, and Glanville walked us through a number of really interesting resources, including the Yale MeSH Analyzer, PubReMiner, GoPubMed, MeSH on Demand, and Quetzal.

Text analysis tools for the win!

My key takeaway from this part of the course: using text analysis tools can really enhance the search at the creation stage.

Text analysis tools are fast and can give you an instant breakdown of how frequently keywords and MeSH headings are used in a set of target articles. Where before I would have gotten started on a search by identifying a number of target articles and manually scanning them for commonalities (and more recently using the Yale MeSH Analyzer to identify common MeSH terms), using tools like PubReMiner makes this process faster, and also leads to the use of terms and headings that one may not otherwise have picked up on, which will (hopefully) enhance the precision of searches.

Search Filters

In this session, Lefebvre described the processes in which search filters have been designed, gave a brief background on the ISSG Search Filters Resource, and took the group through methods for appraising search filters.

Search filters: to cite or not to cite?

We got into a really interesting discussion as a group when one of the attendees asked our facilitators whether librarians should be citing the use of search filters when they write up their methods.

Lefebvre was quite adamant that all search filters should be cited, published or not, modified or not. She asserted that if modified, the filter should still be cited, but a description of modifications should also be included.

For her part, Glanville felt that modified search filters were essentially new creations and it might be misleading to cite a validated filter (since modification would render validation invalid).

This was a really important conversation to have as a group since I will (somewhat abashedly) admit that though I take painstaking notes of whose searches helped inform my own, it doesn’t always occur to me to cite them when I write up my search methods. Lesson learned!

Search Strategy Structure

What do you do when a search question doesn’t fit into a tidy PICO breakdown? During this session of the day, Glanville walked the group through other search mnemonics such as SPICE (qualitative), ECLIPSE (management) and variations on PICO such as PICOT-D. We also spent some time as a group developing searches that are broken down into concepts, but which don’t fit into tidy search mnemonics. As Glanville pointed out, this strategy can be useful when searching topics in public health, epidemiology, adverse effects and quality of life.

Peer Review of Complex Search Strategies

During this final session of the day, Lefebvre discussed search strategy peer review with the group, and took us through the Peer Review of Complex Search Strategies or PRESS project and its 2015 update. We also spent some time individually assessing a search strategy with errors embedded throughout and went over the search as a group to discuss various approaches and possible improvements.

Final Thoughts

All in all, this was a very useful course, and I have already attempted incorporating text analysis tools in my search strategy formulation (saving time and identifying search terms that wouldn’t normally have been on my radar in the process).

I would say that our session was excellent for two main reasons:

  • Julie Glanville and Carol Lefebvre are incredibly knowledgeable and experienced. They are a veritable wealth of information and are both searching powerhouses.
  • Thanks to our small class size and the way in which Glanville and Lefebvre organized the session, we also got to learn from our colleagues quite a bit in small and large group discussions – you wouldn’t believe the collective brain power we had in the room that day!

Many thanks to the Glanville and Lefebvre for their enthusiasm and knowledge, to my fellow attendees for sharing their own excellent ideas and thoughts with the group, and to my workplace, the Maritime SPOR SUPPORT Unit for sponsoring my attendance at this session!

Medical Librarian Blogs

I signed up this year for a professional mentorship program with our local MLIS candidates, and the student I was paired up with asked me for some things she could read about health sciences librarianship to get a sense of the field.

I immediately thought some interesting medical library blogs would be a good place to start. Because my student is on the ball, when I brought up blogs she mentioned she’d been to my website, and diplomatically informed me that I hadn’t posted in ages. So I resolved to find her a list of much superior health library blogs, and then blog about it myself so that my own blog would stop being so lame.

Naturally, my first thought was to consult the amazing collective intelligence that is our health library listserv hive brain. I sent out an email on both the CANMEDLIB (Canadian Medical Libraries Listserv) and the MEDLIB (Medical Libraries Discussion List) listservs, asking everyone what blogs they found interesting or would help give students an idea of our field. Here is a summary of the blogs (in no particular order) that were recommended to me. A less detailed summary of this list was sent out to the listservs as well.

Krafty Librarian (*Most Mentioned*)

  • Written by Michelle Kraft (Senior Medical Librarian at the Cleveland Clinic Alumni Library and current Medical Library Association President) & Guests
  • Microblogging more your steam? Check her out on Twitter: @Krafty

Interestingly, Michelle Kraft has lined up a number of guest bloggers to continue posting on her blog while she is busy with her Presidential duties for MLA. What a cool idea!

A Librarian by Any Other Name (*Most Mentioned*)

  • Written by Sally Gore (Research Evaluation Analyst, UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UMass Medical School)
  • Twitter handle: @mandosally

Also referred to by many simply as “Librarian Hats”, Sally Gore blogs about all kinds of things, but I especially like the Sketchnotes and Infographics sections.

Mr. Library Dude

  • Written by Joe Hardenbrook (Reference and Instruction librarian at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin)
  • Twitter handle: @mrlibrarydude

Though he hasn’t blogged since October of last year, Joe Hardenbrook is very active on Twitter, and also has some timeless gems about preparing for library interviews and advice on becoming a librarian. This blog is definitely worth checking out!

Mark MacEachern

  • Written by Mark Maceachern (Informationist at the Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan)
  • Twitter handle: @markmac

Mark MacEachern’s blog is an interesting mix of posts about systematic reviews, evidence-based medicine, art, music and more.

Womens’ Health News

  • Written by Rachel Walden (Associate Dean, Department of Learning Resources, Quillen College of Medicine)
  • Twitter handle: @rachel_w

As with several of the other bloggers, while her last post is almost a year old, Rachel Walden is very active on twitter. As the name suggests, this is a passionate blog about women’s health issues, and Walden deals with some tough topics on her blog.

MLA Full Speed Ahead

  • Community blog written by Medical Library Association members, sections, chapters, committees etc as well as other health information organizations
  • Twitter handle: @MedLibAssn (I should note here that this handle is for the whole association, not exclusively for the blog – as far as I can tell there isn’t a specific twitter account for this blog)

Created in March of 2015 to discuss the MLA strategic plan and generate conversation. According to their main descriptive post, they welcome submissions about  “how you’re living out the principles of change, growth, and innovation. Tell us about what’s going on in your chapter or region, what your section or SIG is doing, or how you’re moving things forward in your own library” (Lund, 2015).

Eagle Dawg

  • Written by Nikki Detmar (Health Sciences Curriculum Design Librarian at the University of Washington)
  • Twitter handle: @eagledawg

In addition to being a great blog, Nikki Detmar’s blogroll (bottom left hand side of page) was also highlighted as a good source for Medical Library blogs. You’ll recognize quite a few from this post, but also a number of other blogs that I haven’t yet had the chance to explore. Absolutely worth checking out.

Librarian in the City

  • Written by Lisa Federer (Research Data Informationist, NIH Library,
    National Institutes of Health)
  • Twitter handle: @lisafederer

This recommendation was one of my favourites. I’m sorry to bias things (I remained coolly neutral in my summarized email to the medlib listservs – notice how I’ve even put this one in the middle so as not to over-privilege it?), but personally I found it the perfect combination of humour/topics/interests for me.

Library Day in the Life

This blog actually stopped posting in 2012, but is archived for your reading pleasure! This was a blog project in which “librarians, library staff and library students from all over the globe shared a day (or week) in their life through blog posts, photos, video and Twitter updates” (Newman, 2012), and was recommended as a potentially useful resource for aspiring librarians/information specialists.

Hack My Library School

  • This blog isn’t focused solely on medical librarianship, but is rather a community blog  “by, for, and about” MLIS students, covering also sorts of topics.
  • Twitter handle: @hacklibschool

This was an interesting description that I received about this blog, and thought I’d preserve it for this post: “I actually really like HackMyLibrarySchool as a reader, but as a professor have cringed quite a few times when I read the evident misconceptions that a lot of students have about the general MLS, let alone any specializations within the MLS. I tend to see HackMLS as a representation of what students think — for good and bad.”

More Medical Library Blogs:

Looking for more? Here’s a list from the LIS Wiki:

Health Sciences Library Books:

Some books were also recommended by listservers:

  • Ennis, L., & Mitchell, N. (2010). The accidental health sciences librarian. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc. 
  • Wood, M. (2014). Health sciences librarianship. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


Lund, E. (2015). Full Speed Ahead Now Open for Submissions. Retrieved from

Newman, B. (2012). Library Day in the Life Project. Retrieved from

I’m Back!

Whew! And just like that, there goes a year and 8 months.

I won’t bore you with lamenting about what a terrible blogger I’ve been, instead let’s talk about all the cool stuff I’ve done since my last post!

Since April 2014:

  • I moved back to Nova Scotia from Manitoba to start my job at the Maritime SPOR SUPPORT Unit. It was a happy/sad moment. I really loved Winnipeg and all the people I met and worked with there, but I was also really pumped to be able to live in the same province as my husband again, and start my new position working with health researchers in the Maritimes (and the Maritimes rock)!
  • Weathered the Terrible, No Good Winter of 2014-2015 (good thing I had spent the last winter in Winterpeg, I was totally mentally prepared).
Driveway ice!
Driveway ice!
  • Was an author on my first peer-reviewed research publication. I know, I wasn’t first author or anything, but even the most prestigious of authors has to start somewhere! :-)

Jensen JL, Carter AJ, Rose J, Visintini S, Bourdon E, Brown R, McVey J, Travers AH. Alternatives to Traditional EMS Dispatch and Transport: A Scoping Review of Reported Outcomes. CJEM. 2015 Sep;17(5):532-50. doi: 10.1017/cem.2014.59. Epub 2015 Mar 18. PubMed PMID: 26014661.

  • Ran a leg of the Cabot Trail Relay Race (24 hr relay around the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, NS)

  • Was an author in my first conference abstract for a lightning talk at the Cochrane Colloquium in Vienna (sadly I didn’t represent the team in Vienna).

Parker RM, Visintini S, Ritchie KC, Hayden JA. Online systematic review methods training resources: environmental scan and identification of key characteristics. Cochrane Colloquium Vienna [Internet]. Cochrane; 2015 [cited 3 December 2015]. Available from:

  • Went on an awesome trip to Scotland with my grandfather
  • Got accepted for a couple of submissions to Mosaic 2016, the joint MLA/CHLA/ABSC/ICLC Conference in Toronto next Spring (I’ll try to post more about that soon)

All in all, it’s been an amazing (nearly) two years, both personally and professionally. I must admit that this post feels like I’m tooting my own horn, but I think sometimes it’s important to look back and celebrate those big and little successes, in order to plan for the future!

I’m excited to dust this blog off and getting back to posting about things that interest me professionally. Hopefully this will be a valuable read to a few (ya, they say, now she’s humble), but also serve as a good exercise for me to take time to be thoughtful and strategic about what’s going on in my field and around me at work.

Teaching and Librarianship

One of the things I never really thought about going into library school was how big a component teaching was to the profession of librarianship.

How naive was I?

I think part of the reason is that it doesn’t feature much in the program. I had a quick look at Dalhousie, McGill, U of T, University of Alberta and UBC’s course descriptions. Teaching barely registers in many of these top schools. When it is mentioned, it’s either couched in library-speak (“Information Literacy” a top offender in my mind) or perhaps sandwiched in with a variety of other topics (“Services for User Group XYZ”). UBC’s School of Library, Archival & Information Studies, the iSchool, and Dalhousie lead the pack with courses that are dedicated to pedagogy, such as Instructional Role of the Librarian and Design and Evaluation of Information Literacy Programs, and Managing Information Literacy Instruction respectively. What I find interesting here (and perhaps will serve as a balm on my ego for not seeing this coming) is that the course lists for these programs aren’t exactly overflowing with classes on how to be a good teacher. Here and there you find an elective, but just as often you might not.

This isn’t to grouse on the education I received – I opted to take other electives, after all – but more of a reflection on what I expected going out into the library workforce, and increasingly it seems, what is expected from librarians based on the job postings. Had I known what I do now, I would have been signing up for every teaching seminar and taking any class I could.

This post has been kicking around in my brain for a while now, ever since I had the opportunity to attend a Manitoba Association of Health Information Providers‘ continuing  education session on incorporating active learning strategies into instruction (above) presented by the lovely Mê-Linh Lê.

It served as a gentle but firm reminder that teaching isn’t a part of librarianship that can be ignored, and that if I want to be a good librarian, I better learn to be a good teacher too.