Where are the Systematic Reviews we need?

New Scientist writes (subscription necessary to read article),

If you want to know how to preserve biodiversity, do not rely on articles in conservation journals, a new study warns.

IF YOU want to know how to preserve biodiversity, don’t rely on articles in conservation journals. So says a study which argues that conservationists should follow the medical profession’s lead, and ensure that their decisions are objectively based.

“We’re about 30 years behind the medical revolution,” says Philip Roberts of the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation at the University of Birmingham in the UK. As a standard to aspire to, Roberts and his team took the systematic reviews that are the bedrock of evidence-based medicine. These reviews start with a carefully framed question, and typically list the search terms used to find the studies to be analysed. Strict criteria are then applied to exclude poor-quality research, and finally rigorous statistical tests on the pooled results are used as the basis of an objective guide for doctors to what treatments work best.

The study referred to is Are review articles a reliable source of evidence to support conservation and environmental management? A comparison with medicine.


Review articles are important sources of information and often the only source of evidence used by decision makers in conservation and environmental management to assess effectiveness and impact of interventions and other actions. Recent developments in the field of medicine and public health have established ‘systematic review’ guidelines to minimise bias and explicitly document methodology, allowing replication and updating in light of further advances. The aim of this article was to assess the methodological and reporting rigour of reviews from the disciplines of conservation, ecology and environmental management (referred to as “ecological reviews”). This was achieved by comparing them to medical systematic reviews, using 27 detailed criteria well established in medicine. When compared with medical systematic reviews, ecological reviews were more likely to be prone to bias, lacking details in the methods used to search for studies, and were less likely to assess the relevance of studies, quality of the original experiments and to quantitatively synthesise the evidence. Overall, ecological reviews show lower quality and greater variation in reporting style and review methods. To address this, reviewers could use a systematic review approach and journals could provide more explicit guidelines for the preparation and production of review articles.


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