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I spoke with a research professor who informed me that I may be able to work with him on a systematic review. However, he warned that it can be very tedious and frustrating so I should think about it. I understand that a systematic review involves looking through many papers, however, I would appreciate if someone could tell me, from their experience, how it is tedious. I would also have other classes in addition to this research so would be able to work on it for about 10 hours a week.

  • In terms of searching for papers and writing summaries of them – aspire94 Nov 22 '16 at 22:02
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    You can get a degree of understanding of what a systematic review will entail by reading its Wikipedia page. Depending on the topic of your review you may have many or few papers in the literature to review, and obviously this has consequences for how long it'll take you. This page on systematic reviews does include the sage advice "don't underestimate how long a systematic review will take." – Ian_Fin Nov 22 '16 at 22:23
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    This fits in a certain archetype of frequently asked questions on this site: "My professor told me X. What did they mean by X?" A website populated by experts on X may indeed have some insight into what your professor meant by X, but the best approach seems to be asking your professor what they meant by X. – Pete L. Clark Nov 23 '16 at 5:59
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    Asking how something is tedious would seem to be primarily opinion-based. As to what it entails, that's been asked and answered already – EnergyNumbers Nov 23 '16 at 7:52
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Tedious has a negative connotation. In many ways systematic review is meticulous, which to some people may appear tedious. One who enjoys reading, inspecting clues, and putting puzzles together to reveal hidden patterns would enjoy doing a systematic review.

The first hurdle is perhaps setting up the research question and search criteria. If the set of keywords is not close to perfect the resultant articles may not be exhaustive, and being exhaustive is a spirit of systematic review. In addition, all searches need to be documented through writing or using codes, so that the search can be replicated by other people.

The second hurdle is combing through moderate to large amounts of abstracts in order to identify the right targets. A set of carefully developed selection criteria will help. But a good handful of the retrieved abstracts may still fall into the gray zone and require some meetings to sort them out

Then it comes the actual reading and data extraction. This can take months and months of reading, re-reading, tabulation, and revision. Again, if the authors know what to extract very clearly, the process can get less iterative.

Notice that for the previous two hurdles, some research team may require two or more researchers to do them independently and then compare their results for agreement before divvying up the work. Be prepared for frequent team meetings or communications for troubleshooting.

The last hurdle is to put all the tabulated information into use, through grouping, sorting, summary, and synthesis. This requires a great deal of understanding from the reading process and one's experience. The process can often be iterative. Making a good conceptual framework will help setting up a more robust draft. Keeping the research questions in mind as the north pointer can also prevent getting lost.

And, all of the actions above need to be documented so that anyone can pick up the review and conduct a similar search (say, maybe 5 or 10 years later) in order to compare with what you found. In a way, systematic review can be viewed as an exhaustive, planned, and replicable literature review.

Now back to your case. If it's 10 hours a week for a semester, chance is you will not see the fruition of the article, but you can definitely take part. The important part is to get a very clear idea which part of the process you're taking. Article searching and downloading may work for more flexible schedule, even 10 hours on a day per week is fine as long as you keep good searching notes. But if it's the later stage, it's better to work on it by small amount, like 2 hours every day, as the later stage requires more consistent immersion and regurgitating.

And if I may make another suggestion, ask if the supervisor needs anyone to do a more general literature review for a grant proposal or a journal article. That should give you a smaller, more defined task and you can use this chance to see if you like this kind of work and, more importantly, if you and your supervisor work well together.

  • Thank you, this is extremely descriptive. This is actually a brand new project that will begin shortly. So I am assuming that the supervisor has already or will shortly set up the research criteria. The topic of this project directly relates the my field of interest in graduate school and am hoping this is useful when I apply to graduate school. Thus, it is very relevant (and the researcher seems nice), but he did frighten me and now I am afraid that I will let him down as it will be too difficult. – aspire94 Nov 23 '16 at 16:06
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A review article can be a massive undertaking.

There might be no co-authorship if your contribution is not significant enough, if the scope of the review paper is very large and your contribution is a very small proportion of the work involved. Check whether or not you may expect authorship credit.

I am concerned that this might end up being grunt work for you.

On the other hand, even without co-authorship, if you are really interested in the subject, and if you are able to put clear limits on how much time you put in, and stick to them, it could be worthwhile for you.

It can be tedious in the sense that there can be so many articles to include in the review that it starts to feel like you're crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat.

(Not that I have ever written one. But I typed one in LaTeX for my advisor and even that started to feel rather endless after a while. I am still astounded how he managed to keep track of so many different papers.)

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    Why would you assume no co-authorship? – ff524 Nov 23 '16 at 2:26
  • @ff524 - There might be no co-authorship because the student's contribution might not be significant enough, if the scope of the review paper is very large and the student's contribution is a very small proportion of the work involved. This is a potential downside. Obviously, co-authorship would make the project more attractive. But the question, are these articles OP wants to read anyway, is quite important in figuring out how well this project would fit. – aparente001 Nov 23 '16 at 4:26
  • If that's what your concern is, you should clarify in your answer (or suggest that the student make sure to discuss what the requirements for authorship would be up front, before starting). Right now, your answer sounds like you're suggesting that "no co-authorship" is what the student should generally expect, which is just not accurate. – ff524 Nov 23 '16 at 4:28
  • @ff524 - I added "perhaps" in a key place. Or did you have something more substantial in mind? – aparente001 Nov 23 '16 at 4:29
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    @ff524 - If I managed to make any improvements, it was due to your help. However, if it's still not very clear or positive, it's not your fault. – aparente001 Nov 23 '16 at 5:35

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