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Scoping Reviews: Overview

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Scoping Reviews

This guide covers the process, methods, resources, and support for conducting scoping reviews at UNC, including how scoping reviews compare to other types of literature reviews, the steps to complete a scoping review, and how the Health Sciences Library can partner with you to ensure successful completion of your review.   

What is a scoping review?

From the PRISMA Website

"Scoping reviews serve to synthesize evidence and assess the scope of literature on a topic. Among other objectives, scoping reviews help determine whether a systematic review of the literature is warranted." (PRISMA 2021).

The key characteristics of a scoping review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;

  • an explicit, reproducible methodology;

  • a comprehensive search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria;

  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies"

Scoping reviews are similar to systematic reviews, but differ primarily in their purpose. While systematic reviews attempt to answer a specific question through a comprehensive synthesis of the literature, scoping reviews attempt to identify the scope of literature available through a comprehensive synthesis. 

Scoping Review Examples

  • Smith V, Devane D, Nichol A, Roche D. Care bundles for improving outcomes in patients with COVID‐19 or related conditions in intensive care – a rapid scoping review. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2020, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD013819. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013819.
  • Pham MT, Rajić A, Greig JD, Sargeant JM, Papadopoulos A, McEwen SA. A scoping review of scoping reviews: advancing the approach and enhancing the consistency. Res Synth Methods. 2014;5(4):371-385. doi:10.1002/jrsm.1123

A Simplified Process Map

Scoping Reviews: A Simplified, Step-by-Step Process  Step 1: Pre-Review. Common tasks include formulating a team, developing research question(s), determining the eligibility criteria, and scoping literature for published scoping or systematic reviews on the topic. Librarians can provide substantial support for Step 1.  Step 2: Develop Protocol. Common tasks include writing the protocol and making the protocol accessible via a website or registry.  Step 3: Conduct Literature Searches. Common tasks include partnering with a librarian, searching multiple databases, performing other searching methods such as hand searching, and locating grey literature or other unpublished research. Librarians can provide substantial support for Step 3. Step 4: Manage Citations. Common tasks include exporting citations to a citation manager such as Endnote, preparing a PRISMA flow-chart with numbers of citations for steps, updating as necessary, and de-duplicating citations and uploading them to a screening tool such as Covidence. Librarians can provide substantial support for Step 4.  Step 5: Screen Citations. Common tasks include screening titles and abstracts of citations using inclusion criteria with at least two reviewers and locating full-text and screening citations that meet inclusion criteria with at least two reviewers.  UNC Health Sciences Librarians (HSL) Librarians can provide support with using AI or other automation approaches to reduce the volume of literature that must be screened manually. Reach out to HSL for more information.  Step 6: Conduct Quality Assessment (Optional for Scoping Reviews). Common tasks include performing quality assessments, like a critical appraisal, of the included studies.  Step 7: Complete Data Extraction. Common tasks include extracting data from included studies and creating tables of studies for the manuscript.  Step 8: Write Review. Common tasks include consulting the PRISMA-ScR checklist or other reporting standard, writing the manuscript, and organizing supplementary materials. Librarians can provide substantial support for Step 8.

What do I need to get started?

Consider the following questions before you begin a scoping review. 

1. Is your question suited to a scoping review? A question that is well suited to this methodology is:

  • designed to identify the amount and/or scope of the literature available on your topic.
  • based on a specific intervention or problem and will ensure that your search produces relevant results.
  • narrow enough that identifying and reviewing all of the relevant literature is possible. An extremely broad question (e.g. examining pain management and assessment) may be more suited to a general literature review or evidence mapping.
  • broad enough that you will be able to find some relevant literature.  An extremely narrow topic (e.g. an examination of a very small subset of a population) or one that is examining a very new treatment or concept may not return enough relevant literature for a review to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions.
  • defined with some consistency across the literature. A question with a multi-stepped intervention, or one in which different elements of an intervention may or may not be included in each study may be more suited to a decision modeling approach.

2. Are you asking a complete question?

Thinking about your PICO (population, intervention(s), comparator(s), and outcomes) and your Key Question(s) will help you to ensure that you have thought of the important parts of your question and are not leaving out anything that may significantly alter your question. You can use the HSL Systematic Review Development Worksheet to help you refine and develop your PICO and Key Questions.

3. Has a recent scoping review already addressed this exact question? Or has a recent systematic review been published on this same topic?

If you determine that your question is suited to a scoping review, you will then want to search for recent or upcoming reviews on your topic or on similar topics, to ensure that your review will not be duplicating someone else's efforts and that you will be adding something new to the literature. A librarian can help you to search for recently published reviews on your topic, as well as searching systematic review protocol registries such as PROSPERO, which will give you an idea of whether or not a review of your topic is likely to be published soon.

4. Do you have the time and resources needed to conduct a scoping review?

A scoping review usually takes 6-12 months, from formulating your question through journal article submission. Input from at least 3 team members is needed, in addition to advice or input from a librarian or team member who is experienced in searching the literature. One team member handles the processes of the review: creating data abstraction forms, keeping track of inclusion/exclusion decisions, handling team communications, managing databases and forms, etc. Two team members perform inclusion/exclusion decision making and data abstraction. The additional team member acts as a tiebreaker in the case of a disagreement. One to two team members analyze the data and write your publication. Depending on the size of the literature, you may want to add additional team members.

5. Can you meet all of the requirements for reporting a complete scoping review detailed in the checklist of the PRISMA extension for Scoping Reviews?

The PRISMA-ScR checklist contains 22 items that each scoping review should report in order to ensure transparency and completion of reporting. These items include parts to include in each section of your review. Using this checklist will help to ensure that the journal you wish to submit to will consider your methods adequate.