Systematic reviews are a reassessment of scholarly literature to facilitate decision making. This methodical approach of re-evaluating evidence was initially applied in healthcare, to set policies, create guidelines and answer medical questions. Systematic reviews are large, complex projects and, depending on the purpose, they can be quite expensive to conduct. A team of researchers, data analysts and experts from various fields may collaborate to review and examine incredibly large numbers of research articles for evidence synthesis. Depending on the spectrum, systematic reviews often take at least 6 months, and sometimes upwards of 18 months to complete. The main principles of transparency and reproducibility require a pragmatic approach in the organisation of the required research activities and detailed documentation of the outcomes. As a result, many software tools have been developed to help researchers with some of the tedious tasks required as part of the systematic review process.
The first generation of these software tools were produced to accommodate and manage collaborations, but gradually developed to help with screening literature and reporting outcomes. Some of these software packages were initially designed for medical and healthcare studies and have specific protocols and customised steps integrated for various types of systematic reviews. However, some are designed for general processing, and by extending the application of the systematic review approach to other fields, they are being increasingly adopted and used in software engineering, health-related nutrition, agriculture, environmental science, social sciences and education.
There are various free and subscription-based tools to help with conducting a systematic review. Many of these tools are designed to assist with the key stages of the process, including title and abstract screening, data synthesis, and critical appraisal. Some are designed to facilitate the entire process of review, including protocol development, reporting of the outcomes and help with fast project completion. As time goes on, more functions are being integrated into such software tools. Technological advancement has allowed for more sophisticated and user-friendly features, including visual graphics for pattern recognition and linking multiple concepts. The idea is to digitalise the cumbersome parts of the process to increase efficiency, thus allowing researchers to focus their time and efforts on assessing the rigorousness and robustness of the research articles. This article introduces commonly used systematic review tools that are relevant to food research and related disciplines, which can be used in a similar context to the process in healthcare disciplines. These reviews are based on IFIS’ internal research, thus are unbiased and not affiliated with the companies.
This online platform is a core component of the Cochrane toolkit, supporting parts of the systematic review process, including title/abstract and full-text screening, documentation, and reporting. The Covidence platform enables collaboration of the entire systematic reviews team and is suitable for researchers and students at all levels of experience. From a user perspective, the interface is intuitive, and the citation screening is directed step-by-step through a well-defined workflow. Imports and exports are straightforward, with easy export options to Excel and CVS. Access is free for Cochrane authors (a single reviewer), and Cochrane provides a free trial to other researchers in healthcare. Universities can also subscribe on an institutional basis.
Rayyan is a free and open access web-based platform funded by the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organisation supporting education and community development initiative. Rayyan is used to screen and code literature through a systematic review process. Unlike Covidence, Rayyan does not follow a standard SR workflow and simply helps with citation screening. It is accessible through a mobile application with compatibility for offline screening. The web-based platform is known for its accessible user interface, with easy and clear export options.
EPPI-Reviewer is a web-based software programme developed by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI) at the UCL Institute for Education, London. It provides comprehensive functionalities for coding and screening. Users can create different levels of coding in a code set tool for clustering, screening, and administration of documents. EPPI-Reviewer allows direct search and import from PubMed. The import of search results from other databases is feasible in different formats. It stores, references, identifies and removes duplicates automatically. EPPI-Reviewer allows full-text screening, text mining, meta-analysis and the export of data into different types of reports. There is no limit for concurrent use of the software and the number of articles being reviewed. Cochrane reviewers can access EPPI reviews using their Cochrane subscription details.
EPPI-Centre has other tools for facilitating the systematic review process, including coding guidelines and data management tools.
CADIMA is a free, online, open access review management tool, developed to facilitate research synthesis and structure documentation of the outcomes. The Julius Institute and the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence established the software programme to support and guide users through the entire systematic review process, including protocol development, literature searching, study selection, critical appraisal, and documentation of the outcomes. The flexibility in choosing the steps also makes CADIMA suitable for conducting systematic mapping and rapid reviews. CADIMA was initially developed for research questions in agriculture and environment but it is not limited to these, and as such, can be used for managing review processes in other disciplines. It enables users to export files and work offline.
The software allows for statistical analysis of the collated data using the R statistical software. Unlike EPPI-Reviewer, CADIMA does not have a built-in search engine to allow for searching in literature databases like PubMed.
The systematic review Toolbox is a web-based catalogue of various tools, including software packages which can assist with single or multiple tasks within the evidence synthesis process. Researchers can run a quick search or tailor a more sophisticated search by choosing their approach, budget, discipline, and preferred support features, to find the right tools for their research.
If you benefitted from this blog post, you may also be interested in our recently puiblished blog post addressing the difference between a systematic review and a systematic literature review.