Research synthesis: systematic reviews and meta-analysis

Joanna Moncrieff

in Practical Psychiatric Epidemiology

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2003 | ISBN: 9780198515517
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754289 | DOI:
Research synthesis: systematic reviews and meta-analysis

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The process of synthesizing data from different studies is known as metaanalysis. The techniques were developed in the social sciences and only recently applied to medical research. There has been intense debate about the validity of the process and its potential contribution to research. In medicine the widest application of research synthesis techniques has been with intervention studies. In particular the Cochrane Collaboration1 has promoted the use of systematic reviews and meta-analysis to evaluate medical treatments. Recently there has been increasing attention paid to meta-analysis with other types of study (Altman 2001). This overview will focus on intervention studies, and, after describing the uses and limitations of research synthesis and the particular issues arising for psychiatric researchers, will illustrate the stages in conducting a systematic review or meta-analysis.


For the purposes of this chapter systematic reviews will be taken as referring to reviews which aim to achieve comprehensive coverage of the relevant literature and meta-analysis refers to the statistical process of combining quantitative data from different studies.

The need for research synthesis

(1) The exponential increase in medical research over recent decades makes it impossible for doctors to have a comprehensive knowledge of research in every area relevant to their practice. (2) By virtue of bringing a fresh perspective to an area, systematic reviews may be able to reach a more objective view of the evidence. (3) Health economists and policy makers need an overview of research and a reliable estimate of efficacy to facilitate the process of resource allocation. (4) Collation of research in different settings is valuable in order to obtain a picture of the range of action of a particular intervention. (5) Many studies are not large enough to detect small effects that may be clinically useful. Combining data enhances the power of the analysis to detect such effects. (6) Systematic collation of evidence indicates which areas require more research.

Chapter.  4730 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry ; Public Health and Epidemiology ; Epidemiology

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