Narrative Synthesis in Systematic Reviews

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Statistical approaches to combining quantitative findings from different studies in systematic reviews of evidence are well developed.  However, these techniques are not always appropriate, either because the quantitative data are not adequate or because the findings to be synthesised are both quantitative and qualitative. Narrative approaches to evidence synthesis are therefore being developed but these do not rest on an authoritative body of knowledge. This study was funded by the ESRC and aimed to develop and test methodological guidance on 'good practice' in narrative synthesis as a contribution towards improved quality of systematic reviews. The work began in April 2002 and was undertaken by a team based at the Universities of Lancaster, City and York, the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow and Peninsula Medical School Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

The study objectives were:

  • To review the methodological literature on narrative approaches to evidence synthesis
  • To assess existing approaches to narrative synthesis in systematic reviews;
  • To produce draft guidance on best practice for the narrative synthesis of quantitative and qualitative data
  • To test the use of this guidance
  • To disseminate validated good practice guidance on the conduct of narrative synthesis.

Version 1 of the guidance was produced in April 2006. The guidance provides practical examples of the application of the guidance in two 'demonstration narrative syntheses'. These have now been published and provide important insights into the potential benefits of narrative approaches to the synthesis of findings from multiple studies. Both highlighted the important contribution that the guidance makes to increasing the transparency of narrative synthesis – an approach widely used but currently lacking in transparency.


Impact on Policy and Practice

The availability of high quality research syntheses, addressing questions important to policymakers, implementers and service users is key to the policy agenda on user involvement. Producing these syntheses in ways that are accessible is a challenge for the academic community. Narrative approaches to evidence synthesis are widespread but they currently do not rest on an extensive body of methodological work and often lack transparency. Our guidance has already been welcomed by some of the leading figures in the world of evidence synthesis and we are confident that it will contribute to increasing the quality of the evidence available to policy makers and practitioners in this country and elsewhere.


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Site last updated: 28 October, 2009