Search is a verb: systematic review searching as invisible labor

Amanda Ross-White


Invisible labor is a term used by labor economists to describe work that contributes, and is often even necessary, to the economy but largely goes unrecognized and unpaid. Despite the fact that systematic review searching is a significant task for many librarians and knowledge professionals, the search process can be considered a form of invisible labor because it often goes without recognition. This occurs sometimes through not granting authorship to the librarian who performed the intellectual contribution of search development and sometimes through a devaluing of the search process by the choice of language used to describe the search. By using the term search as a passive verb or noun, authors devalue the real intellectual labor involved in searching, which includes decisions related to search terms and combinations, database selection, and other search parameters. This commentary explores the context of how searching is described through the concept of invisible labor.


authorship; librarians; information storage and retrieval; systematic reviews as topic; feminism; work

Full Text:



Crain MG, Poster W, Cherry MA, eds. Invisible labor: hidden work in the contemporary world. Oakland, CA: University of California Press; 2016.

Daniels AK. Invisible work. Social Problems. 1987;34(5):403–15. DOI:

Findley H, Fretwell C, Wheatley R, Ingram E. Dress and grooming standards: how legal are they? Journal of Individual Employment Rights. 2005;12:165–82.

Gurung RAR, Brickner M, Leet M, Punke E. Dressing “in code”: clothing rules, propriety, and perceptions. J Soc Psychol. 2018;158(5):553–7. DOI:

Warner DG. A new classification for reference statistics. Reference & User Services Quarterly. 2001;41(1):51–55.

Ehrlich K, Cash D. The invisible world of intermediaries: a cautionary tale. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). 1999;8(1):147–67. DOI:

Ross-White A. An environmental scan of librarian involvement in systematic reviews at Queen’s University: 2020 update. J Can Health Libr Assoc. 2021;42(2). DOI:

Ross-White A. Librarian involvement in systematic reviews at Queen's University: an environmental scan. J Can Health Libr Assoc. 2016;37(2):39–43. DOI:

Rethlefsen ML, Farrell AM, Osterhaus Trzasko LC, Brigham TJ. Librarian co-authors correlated with higher quality reported search strategies in general internal medicine systematic reviews. J Clin Epidemiol. 2015;68(6):617–26. DOI:

ICMJE. Defining the role of authors and contributors. [Internet] 2020 [cited 25 Feb 2021]. Available from: .

Wislar JS, Flanagin A, Fontanarosa PB, Deangelis CD. Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: a cross sectional survey. BMJ. 2011;343:d6128. DOI:

Gülen S, Fonnes S, Andresen K, Rosenberg J. More than one-third of Cochrane reviews had gift authors, whereas ghost authorship was rare. J Clin Epidemiol. 2020;128:13–19. DOI:

Larivière V, Desrochers N, Macaluso B, Mongeon P, Paul-Hus A, Sugimoto CR. Contributorship and division of labor in knowledge production. Soc Stud Sci. 2016;46(3):417–35. DOI:

Bielska IA, Wang X, Lee R, Johnson AP. The health economics of ankle and foot sprains and fractures: a systematic review of English-language published papers. Part 1: overview and critical appraisal. Foot (Edinb). 2019;39:106–14. DOI: PubMed PMID: 29108669.

Auais M, Al-Zoubi F, Matheson A, Brown K, Magaziner J, French SD. Understanding the role of social factors in recovery after hip fractures: a structured scoping review. Health Soc Care Community. 2019;27(6):1375–87. DOI:

Wong J, Bahji A, Khalid-Khan S. Psychotherapies for adolescents with subclinical and borderline personality disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Can J Psychiatry. 2020;65(1):5–15. DOI:

Davidson JR, Dickson C, Han H. Cognitive behavioural treatment for insomnia in primary care: a systematic review of sleep outcomes. Br J Gen Pract. 2019;69(686):e657–64. DOI:

Tauber NM, O'Toole MS, Dinkel A, Galica J, Humphris G, Lebel S, Maheu C, Ozakinci G, Prins J, Sharpe L, Smith AB, Thewes B, Simard S, Zachariae R. Effect of psychological intervention on fear of cancer recurrence: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Oncol. 2019;37(31):2899–915. DOI:

Chaudhuri D, Herritt B, Heyland D, Gagnon L-P, Thavorn K, Kobewka D, Kyeremanteng K. Early renal replacement therapy versus standard care in the ICU: a systematic review, meta-analysis, and cost analysis. J Intensive Care Med. 2019;34(4):323–9. DOI:

Macaluso B, Lariviere V, Sugimoto T, Sugimoto CR. Is science built on the shoulders of women? A study of gender differences in contributorship. Acad Med. 2016;91(8):1136–42. DOI: PubMed PMID: 27276004.

Corcoran K. 2017 MLA compensation & benefits survey. Chicago, IL: Medical Library Association; 2017.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2021 Amanda Ross-White

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.