Whitney A. Townsend, MLIS, Patricia F. Anderson, MILS, Emily C. Ginier, MLIS, Mark P. MacEachern, MLIS, Kate M. Saylor, MSI, Barbara L. Shipman, AMLS, Judith E. Smith, MSLIS
Received 01 February 2017: Accepted 01 February 2017
The project identified a set of core competencies for librarians who are involved in systematic reviews.
A team of seven informationists with broad systematic review experience examined existing systematic review standards, conducted a literature search, and used their own expertise to identify core competencies and skills that are necessary to undertake various roles in systematic review projects.
The team identified a total of six competencies for librarian involvement in systematic reviews: “Systematic review foundations,” “Process management and communication,” “Research methodology,” “Comprehensive searching,” “Data management,” and “Reporting.” Within each competency are the associated skills and knowledge pieces (indicators). Competence can be measured using an adaptation of Miller’s Pyramid for Clinical Assessment, either through self-assessment or identification of formal assessment instruments.
The Systematic Review Competencies Framework provides a standards-based, flexible way for librarians and organizations to identify areas of competence and areas in need of development to build capacity for systematic review integration. The framework can be used to identify or develop appropriate assessment tools and to target skill development opportunities.
Informationists and librarians have a significant role to play in the research enterprise through partnering with researchers on systematic reviews (SRs). Collaborations have become increasingly common , and librarian contributions extend beyond expert searching skills . Expert searching, including comprehensive and replicable searches, remains a core way that librarians demonstrate their value . However, through knowledge of and experience in conducting SRs, librarians can provide insight and expertise along the entire lifecycle of an SR. In many instances, researchers want to conduct their own searches but need significant assistance with resources to consult as well as search strategies to employ . The consulting role can also extend into other areas, such as question refinement, processes and procedures for data extraction and management, SR methodology, and appropriate reporting for publication. In other instances, the librarian may be a full partner in the SR process by helping refine the research question, prepare and submit protocols, search the literature, manage data, and on some occasions, screen and appraise studies for inclusion before writing part of the manuscript for publication.
As informationists at the University of Michigan’s Taubman Health Sciences Library, the authors have collaborated with researchers on SRs for several years. These collaborations tend to develop with researchers who proactively invite us to participate in their projects. The number of SR-related requests continues to increase, along with demands on our time. In this environment of increasing demand, we sought to develop a set of competencies to guide our involvement in SR searching and teaching. Once created, these competencies would help build our library’s capacity by providing a framework for professional development for less experienced informationists, including new hires. Furthermore, the competencies could become a minimum set of standards to be achieved by informationists, thereby bringing more consistency to the information typically shared during consultations with SR project leads.
The Medical Library Association (MLA), other organizations, and individuals have long provided competencies and standards for health sciences librarians [5–10]. While these competencies provide excellent frameworks for skills and knowledge required in the profession as a whole, they do not explicitly address the specific structural and methodologic characteristics of SR involvement beyond broad expectations of competence in expert searching. Through a search of the literature, we found one conference poster outlining a proposed set of SR competencies for librarians  but did not identify additional publications. The explosion of interest in SRs among health sciences librarians—as evidenced by increases in SR-related MLA programming, the convening of the MLA Systematic Reviews Special Interest Group (SIG), and the proliferation of resources and outlets devoted to SRs—makes this the ideal time for a flexible set of guiding competencies focused on librarian involvement in SRs.
We convened in November 2015 with the express purpose of identifying and defining core competencies for informationists and librarians involved in SRs. While our primary charge was to develop competencies to build capacity and skills for local SR work, the resulting document was designed to be used by other individuals and organizations to assess readiness and skills in each competency area.
Our team purposefully included informationists at varying levels of professional experience, all of whom were integrated into SR work through instruction, consultation, and inclusion on SR teams. Five of the team members were instructors or conducted assessment for the “Systematic Reviews: Opportunities for Librarians” flipped-classroom workshop; one led the Michigan Medicine Clinical Care Guideline Development Search team; and three provided SR training in coursework for doctoral nursing candidates.
Team members independently generated a list of skills and knowledge items that they believed to be core components of successful integration into SR projects and teams. Next, individual team members thoroughly reviewed relevant methodology and reporting standards (Cochrane Handbook , Joanna Briggs Reviewer’s Manual , Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) , National Academies Standards for Systematic Reviews , Campbell Collaboration , and Centre for Reviews and Dissemination ) to identify additional skills and ensure consistency with established SR guidelines. We collated the results and grouped the skills and knowledge items (i.e., indicators) by theme to identify overarching competency areas, combining skills where appropriate. Finally, team subgroups defined the scope of each competency and refined the associated indicators that each competency contained. Initially, we attempted to stratify indicators by level of expertise, but it quickly became clear that the relationship of a librarian to any given SR project is not easily defined by terms like “novice,” “intermediate,” and “expert.” Instead, we adapted a version of Miller’s Pyramid for Clinical Assessment (Figure 1) to better reflect the diversity of SR-related roles that librarians take on.
Figure 1 Original and adapted Miller’s Pyramid for Clinical Assessment
In 1990, psychologist George Miller proposed a pyramid as a framework for assessing clinical skills . The original pyramid is divided into four levels in two distinct zones: the cognitive zone (Knows, Knows How) and the behavioral zone (Shows, Does) (Figure 1). By stratifying competence in this way, educators and clinicians can identify appropriate assessment tools depending on the level of competence being measured. Mehay and Burns describe the original levels of Miller’s Pyramid as follows:
In the pyramid, the lower two levels only test cognition (or knowledge) and this is the area where inexperienced trainees (or novices) usually sit: for example, they either “know” something about a mental state examination or they “know how” to do a mental state examination. The upper two levels test behaviour: can they apply what they know into practise? Going back to the previous example: can they “show” how to do a mental state examination or do they actually “do” a mental state examination in practise? 
Of course, the parallels that can be drawn between Miller’s levels of competence for clinical skills and the competencies required for librarian involvement in SRs can only go so far. For our purposes, we adapted these levels to serve as modifiers for the individual indicators in each competency, allowing librarians or organizations to determine their current levels of competence and to identify skill gaps in priority competency areas. The adapted pyramid recognizes the delineation between cognitive and behavioral competence, reflecting the fact that the instructional and consultative roles that librarians often fill require a level of skill equal to, although different from, the performance of those skills as part of an SR team (Figure 1).
Individual librarians’ involvement in and integration with SRs can vary widely depending on their environments, their personal goals, and their institutions’ commitment to and capacity for integration into different facets of the SR process. The resulting competencies represent a broad set of areas in which librarians can develop skills and expertise to support their integration with SRs in their institutions and as part of their professional practice. Each competency has specific knowledge items and skills that serve as indicators of competence. Individual librarians may have differing levels or types of competence depending on their roles on a given SR team and their organizations’ priorities and culture. Whereas one librarian may regularly serve as a team methodologist, another may serve as a consultant for search strategy development. By incorporating the levels of the adapted Miller’s pyramid into the framework, the indicator “Protocol development, including question refinement, inclusion/exclusion criteria, data management plan, and protocol registration” in the “Research methodology” competency can be modified to identify three distinct levels of competence:
The Systematic Review Competency Framework (Table 1) does not propose required levels for each indicator, as individual librarians (even within the same organization) may have differing levels of involvement in or prioritization of SRs as part of their positions. Rather, the framework is designed to help librarians and their organizations to identify their current cognitive or behavioral levels in each competency area and to identify development opportunities to build personal or institutional skills and capacity for SR work that is consistent with recognized SR standards and practices. Similarly, the framework does not provide specific assessment tools to measure level of competence but allows personal and institutional interpretation and identification of appropriate assessments, if desired.
Table 1 Systematic Review Competencies Framework
(knows about and understands)
(applies knowledge through instruction, consultation, or referral to resources)
(applies knowledge consistently as a part of SR teams)
|Systematic review (SR) foundations||How and why SRs are used in the health sciences and how to effectively find SRs||Application of SRs in the health sciences (e.g., clinical care, policy making)|
|Resources and strategies to limit searches to find SRs|
|Methodological distinctions between SRs and other types of literature reviews and primary studies|
|Process management and communication||Resources and skills involved in SR team communication and effective project management||Negotiation of librarian role in SR process (e.g., conducting the searches versus consultative role)|
|Authorship and acknowledgment criteria and responsibilities|
|Typical SR timeline, team composition, and associated tasks|
|Available technologies and avenues for team communication, document sharing, and document archiving (e.g., email, cloud services, conference calls, video conferencing, in-person)|
|Strategies to keep collaborators apprised about search progress and timeline|
|Communication of nuances of exhaustive literature searches and SR searches|
|Research methodology||Ability to comply with and advise teams on SR standards and best practices||Matching of research question to an appropriate review type|
|Core SR methodology and reporting standards, guides, and handbooks|
|Protocol development, including question refinement, inclusion/exclusion criteria, data management plan, and protocol registration|
|Searching (see “Comprehensive searching” competency)|
|Data management (see “Data management” competency)|
|Critical appraisal of SR quality|
|Study selection processes, including inter-rater reliability, risk of bias, and critical appraisal|
|Comprehensive searching||Ability to construct and document replicable search strategies in appropriate literature databases and other information resources||Conduct of preliminary searches to confirm the need for an SR|
|Database selection appropriate to the research question, including grey literature resources|
|Techniques and strategies for keyword and controlled vocabulary search term generation|
|Search filters, including validation and sources|
|Creation of comprehensive search strategies in multiple databases using advanced search techniques|
|Search strategy validation techniques, including use of sentinel articles|
|Techniques and tools to save searches, set auto-alerts, and update searches|
|Transparent and complete documentation procedures for replicable searches|
|Data management||Processes, tools, and skills involved in using data and ensuring data integrity, archiving, and tracking for the SR process||Citation management software (e.g., EndNote, RefWorks, Mendeley)|
|SR software, including strengths, limits, and uses (e.g., Distiller, Covidence, Rayyan)|
|Data extraction tools and forms|
|Appropriate data and process archiving, including version tracking and PRISMA data collection|
|Reporting||Ability to communicate literature search methods and results according to established standards so that they are suitable for publication and are replicable||Reporting standards associated with the literature search|
|Transformation of final search strategies into replicable format for publication (e.g., online appendix or supplement)|
|Communicating the precise search process for publication, including the essential search-related information listed in PRISMA|
Although we do not recommend specific tools to assess SR competencies in this article, the adapted Miller’s pyramid can assist individuals and organizations in developing formal or informal measures of competence. In Miller’s original pyramid, competence at the cognitive levels (Knows, Knows How) is best assessed using traditional true/false, multiple choice, and essay-type questions that demonstrate acquisition of knowledge but do not demonstrate application of that knowledge in practice. By contrast, competence at the behavioral levels (Shows, Does) is assessed through simulation activities and direct observation .
In the context of the adapted pyramid, some suggested measures could include:
As examples, the Preferred Reporting for Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) form  for search strategies could be used to assess the Does level for many of the indicators for the “Comprehensive searching” competency, and comparing published or drafted search methods to PRISMA standards  could do the same for indicators for the “Reporting” competency. When framed this way, expectations of librarians learning about or being involved in SRs are clear and measurable with the development of appropriate assessment tools.
The Systematic Review Competencies Framework highlights areas of expertise in which librarians should achieve cognitive and behavioral competence, depending on their environment and professional goals. The framework can also guide librarians in their professional development and training by identifying cognitive or behavioral knowledge gaps. For libraries considering formalizing or expanding an SR program or service, the framework may be used to ensure appropriate capacity among team members. Administrators can use these competencies to set continuing education and professional development priorities during strategic planning .
We understand that the MLA Systematic Review SIG began the planning process to develop a set of SR competencies in June 2016. We anticipate a high level of agreement, as well as potential differences, between our independently developed documents. We hope that our Systematic Review Competencies Framework and the MLA Systematic Review SIG document encourage continued discussion of the cognitive and behavioral skills that contribute to successful librarian involvement in SRs. We anticipate that these competencies and indicators will continue to evolve as librarians take on new roles with SRs and that they can be adapted to reflect the unique needs of different review types that require systematic searches and data management.
1 Crum JA, Cooper ID. Emerging roles for biomedical librarians: a survey of current practice, challenges, and changes. J Med Libr Assoc. 2013 Oct;101(4):278–86. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3163/1536-5050.101.4.009.
2 Dudden RF, Protzko SL. The systematic review team: contributions of the health sciences librarian. Med Ref Serv Q. 2011;30(3):301–15. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02763869.2011.590425.
3 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 Jun;68(6):617–26. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2014.11.025.
4 Koffel JB, Rethlefsen ML. Reproducibility of search strategies is poor in systematic reviews published in high-impact pediatrics, cardiology and surgery journals: a cross-sectional study. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 26;11(9):e0163309. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163309.
5 Medical Library Association. MLA’s competencies for lifelong learning and professional success [Internet]. The Association [cited 2 Aug 2016]. <http://www.mlanet.org/p/cm/ld/fid=39>.
6 Lawton A, Burns J. A review of competencies needed for health librarians - a comparison of Irish and international practice. Health Inf Libr J. 2015 Jun;32(2):84–94. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/hir.12093.
7 Kaviev AF, Mamontova MS. Information competence of a library specialist as a condition for their professional development. Int J Environ Sci Educ. 2016;11(9):2745–59.
8 Huvila I, Holmberg K, Kronqvist-Berg M, Nivakoski O, Widén G. What is librarian 2.0 - new competencies or interactive relations? a library professional viewpoint. J Libr Inf Sci. 2013;45(3):198–205. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0961000613477122.
9 Giuse NB, Kusnoor SV, Koonce TY, Ryland CR, Walden RR, Naylor HM, Williams AM, Jerome RN. Strategically aligning a mandala of competencies to advance a transformative vision. J Med Libr Assoc. 2013 Oct;101(4):261–7. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3163/1536-5050.101.4.007.
10 Clarke S, Thomas Z. Health librarians: developing professional competence through a ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ model. Health Inf Libr J. 2011 Dec;28(4):326–30. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2010.00959.x.
11 Sieving PC, Dickersin K, Schere R, Ervin A. A proposal for certification of librarians as partners in systematic reviews. Presented at: MLA ‘13, Medical Library Association 113th Annual Meeting; Boston, MA; 2013.
12 Higgins J, Green S, eds. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions 5.1.0 [updated Mar 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration; 2011.
13 Joanna Briggs Institute. Joanna Briggs Institute reviewers’ manual: 2014 edition. 14th ed. Adelaide, Australia: The Institute; 2014.
14 Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. PLoS Med. 2009;6(7):e1000097. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000097.
15 Institute of Medicine, Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research, Eden J, Levit LA, Berg AO, Morton SC. Finding what works in health care: standards for systematic reviews. National Academies Press; 2011.
16 Steering Group of the Campbell Collaboration, ed. Campbell Collaboration systematic reviews: policies and guidelines [updated May 2016 ed.]. The Collaboration; 2014.
17 Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, ed. Systematic reviews: CRD’s guidance for undertaking reviews in healthcare. The Centre; 2009.
18 Miller GE. The assessment of clinical skills/competence/performance. Acad Med. 1990 Sep;65(9 suppl):S63–7.
19 Mehay R, Burns R. Miller’s pyramid/prism of clinical competence. In: Mehay R, ed. The essential handbook for GP training and education. London, UK: Radcliffe Publishing; 2009.
20 McGowan J, Sampson M, Salzwedel DM, Cogo E, Foerster V, Lefebvre C. PRESS peer review of electronic search strategies: 2015 guideline statement. J Clin Epidemiol. 2016 Jul;75:40–6. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2016.01.021.
(Return to Top)
Whitney A. Townsend, MLIS, firstname.lastname@example.org, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Patricia F. Anderson, MILS, email@example.com, Emerging Technologies Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Emily C. Ginier, MLIS, firstname.lastname@example.org, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Mark P. MacEachern, MLIS, email@example.com, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Kate M. Saylor, MSI, firstname.lastname@example.org, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Barbara L. Shipman, AMLS, email@example.com, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Judith E. Smith, MSLIS, firstname.lastname@example.org, Informationist, Taubman Health Sciences Library, University of Michigan, 1135 East Catherine Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Articles in this journal are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
This journal is published by the University Library System of the University of Pittsburgh as part of its D-Scribe Digital Publishing Program and is cosponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Journal of the Medical Library Association, VOLUME 105, NUMBER 3, July 2017