We understand—spreadsheets are readily available as part of most standard office suites and are easily ‘customized’ to do specific tasks using formulas and macros. It can be very tempting to fall back on them as your default tool for literature review – especially since they’re a familiar solution.
Since their development more than 40 years ago, electronic spreadsheets have undeniably revolutionized the workplace, replacing time-consuming, often tedious manual methods with speed and automation.
Likewise, spreadsheets improved the systematic review process in a number of ways. Researchers could employ them to manage, tabulate, share, and review data digitally – a significant step up from doing everything on paper.
However, literature review software is rapidly replacing spreadsheets for conducting evidence-based research. This shift dramatically improves the review process, meaning that researchers can now focus on producing the best quality research with greater speed and ease.
Why Spreadsheets Aren't the Ideal Solution
Spreadsheets might be familiar and easy to use, but because they aren’t purpose built, they can impede workflow, schedules, quality, and even compliance when preparing regulatory submissions that require literature review.
Here are some common questions that arise when using spreadsheets for literature review tasks:
- Where will you store the files?
- How will you set up and enforce version control and workflows?
- Can you easily and instantly collaborate with your literature review team?
- How is the quality and efficiency of your review affected by manual processes?
In a typical scenario, researchers who use spreadsheets for literature review tasks—including screening, data extraction, and storing references—might encounter one or more of these issues:
- A patchwork environment: Spreadsheets can’t do it alone. Consequently, researchers often end up with a mishmash of tools that may not be fully compatible with each other.
- Constant bottlenecks: Spreadsheets create long waiting periods. Each stage of the review must be complete, and the data collated and processed, before starting on the next task.
- More room for error: Although digital, spreadsheets still require extensive manual work like typing and copying/pasting. The routine tasks of data entry, transcription and transposition all lead to inevitable human error, which can be difficult to catch.
- An obstacle to consensus: Spreadsheets lack sophisticated collaboration tools. This means even more work is required to resolve disagreements and monitor your project status.
- A lack of validity: Spreadsheets can cast unnecessary doubt on research validity. Lost files, undocumented processes, or a lack of audit trails or version control can lead to questions about the integrity of the work, even it is actually rigorous and compliant.
Rather than provide a seamless tool for researchers that facilitates teamwork, spreadsheets can instead distract them with miscommunication and errors—and, in the case of regulatory submissions such as clinical evaluation reports (CERs), can even prevent their hard work from being considered compliant.
Benefits of Using Literature Review Software Instead of Spreadsheets
Literature review software provides a level of automation that spreadsheets simply cannot replicate. It gives researchers a powerful, all-in-one tool that increases efficiency, accelerates productivity, and leads to audit-ready results for regulatory submissions. Here are some of the benefits:
- Compliance: For those conducting literature review as part of the CER process or other regulatory documents, literature review software helps you easily check all the required boxes for compliance. Detailed audit log, data version control, and quick searching and lookup capabilities automatically and effectively document your protocol and process.
- Speed: Literature review software automates many labor-intensive tasks. It can flag duplicates with the click of a button, and helps you identify irrelevant articles, extract data, and prepare reports with ease, often with the help of innovative artificial intelligence capabilities.
- Compatibility: The ability to import and export the most common file formats allows you to easily load and manage search results and full text documents. When it’s time to conduct analysis and produce reports for your review, you can export exactly the data you need, in exactly the right format for the next steps.
- Collaboration: Cloud-based solutions ensure real-time collaboration regardless of location.
Accuracy: Data is ‘cleaner’ due to the reduction of transcription errors from the removal of manual processes.
Conclusion - Just Say No
If you’re still relying heavily on spreadsheets in your literature review process, it’s time for a change. Join other companies and research groups that have moved to literature review software and are reaping the benefits. If you make the move, your team can more efficiently produce higher quality work with fewer errors. So, “just say no” to spreadsheets and move to the new gold standard: literature review software.
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