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Systematic searching: Managing references

Collecting and managing references

A systematic literature search often results in hundreds, even thousands of references. Because the work has to be systematic, manual extraction and evaluation of references can be laborious. Reference management software and systematic review management software can help in the process of collecting and evaluating references. The progression of the selection process is usually illustrated in a flowchart in accordance with the PRISMA statement.

Reference management software

  • References can be collected directly from most databases, either as direct imports or in file format. The database manuals describe how to export references from different databases to a reference management program.
  • Reference management software can search for duplicates, i.e. identical references, in search results.
  • References can be organised in folders.
  • Folders and editing rights can also be shared with others.
  • It is easy to go from the reference management software to the full text using the linking service.
  • Source lists and text references can be created using different citation styles.
  • For your writing work, you can download Word plug-ins that make referencing easy.
  • There are many different types of reference management software. Zotero is an example of software that is available free of charge.

Systematic review tools

  • Systematic Review Toolbox is a is a web-based catalogue of tools that support various tasks within the systematic review process.
  • The SUMARI tool, part of the Joanna Briggs Institute's Evidence Based Practice database, is available to members of the TUNI community.
  • References can be uploaded to software by creating text files directly from databases or by downloading references from reference management software.
  • Duplicates, i.e. identical references from different databases, can be checked by the software. In many cases the check is done automatically.
  • Software can store background information for the review, such as the search strategy.
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria can be recorded for the review process.
  • The software allows a smooth workflow at the different stages of the review process for everyone involved in the reviews: everyone has to review the references both at the abstract-title stage and at the full-text stage, if the review process is configured to do so.
  • The software provide tools for assessing the quality of studies, classifying them and recording observations.
  • In general, the PRISMA flow chart of the process can be downloaded from the software. 

PRISMA - Preferred Reporting Items of Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses

  • The PRISMA 2020 statement provides guidance on how to report a systematic review. It consists of a 27-item checklist and flow charts to report on the progress of the selection process.
  • The PRISMA Flowchart is an established way of describing the process of selecting search results. The template can be downloaded from the PRISMA Statement website. It can also be created using the ShinyApp application. PRISMA Flowchart is generated automatically by many systematic review management applications.
  • It should be kept in mind that PRISMA is not a  manual for undertaking a systematic review but a reporting guideline.



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