Conceptual recommendations for selecting the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to answer research questions related to complex evidence

J Clin Epidemiol. 2016 May:73:43-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2015.11.022. Epub 2016 Feb 18.


Objective: To compare and contrast different knowledge synthesis methods and map their specific steps through a scoping review to gain a better understanding of how to select the most appropriate knowledge synthesis method to answer research questions of complex evidence.

Study design and setting: Electronic databases were searched to identify studies reporting emerging knowledge synthesis methods (e.g., Realist review) across multidisciplinary fields. Two reviewers independently selected studies and abstracted data for each article.

Results: We synthesized diverse, often conflicting evidence to identify 12 unique knowledge synthesis methods and 13 analysis methods. We organized the 12 full knowledge synthesis methods according to their purpose, outputs and applicability for practice and policy, as well as general guidance on formulating the research question. To make sense of the overlap across these knowledge synthesis methods, we derived a conceptual algorithm to elucidate the process for selecting the optimal knowledge synthesis methods for particular research questions.

Conclusion: These findings represent a preliminary understanding on which we will base further advancement of knowledge in this field. As part of next steps, we will convene a meeting of international leaders in the field aimed at clarifying emerging knowledge synthesis approaches.

Keywords: Concept synthesis; Integrative review; Knowledge synthesis; Meta ethnography; Meta-interpretation narrative synthesis; Meta-synthesis; Metastudy; Realist review; Systematic review; critical interpretive synthesis.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Review Literature as Topic*