Background: Systematic Reviews (SRs) are an essential part of evidence-based medicine, providing support for clinical practice and policy on a wide range of medical topics. However, producing SRs is resource-intensive, and progress in the research they review leads to SRs becoming outdated, requiring updates. Although the question of how and when to update SRs has been studied, the best method for determining when to update is still unclear, necessitating further research.
Methods: In this work we study the potential impact of a machine learning-based automated system for providing alerts when new publications become available within an SR topic. Some of these new publications are especially important, as they report findings that are more likely to initiate a review update. To this end, we have designed a classification algorithm to identify articles that are likely to be included in an SR update, along with an annotation scheme designed to identify the most important publications in a topic area. Using an SR database containing over 70,000 articles, we annotated articles from 9 topics that had received an update during the study period. The algorithm was then evaluated in terms of the overall correct and incorrect alert rate for publications meeting the topic inclusion criteria, as well as in terms of its ability to identify important, update-motivating publications in a topic area.
Results: Our initial approach, based on our previous work in topic-specific SR publication classification, identifies over 70% of the most important new publications, while maintaining a low overall alert rate.
Conclusions: We performed an initial analysis of the opportunities and challenges in aiding the SR update planning process with an informatics-based machine learning approach. Alerts could be a useful tool in the planning, scheduling, and allocation of resources for SR updates, providing an improvement in timeliness and coverage for the large number of medical topics needing SRs. While the performance of this initial method is not perfect, it could be a useful supplement to current approaches to scheduling an SR update. Approaches specifically targeting the types of important publications identified by this work are likely to improve results.