Knowledge Synthesis is Core to KT

Knowledge Synthesis within Knowledge Translation

Knowledge Synthesis. It’s one of the four key areas of focus in knowledge translation (KT).

In their introductory paper “The Art and Science of Knowledge Synthesis”, Tricco and colleagues define synthesis as the process of synthesizing results from individual research studies and interpreting the results within the context of global evidence.

Knowledge synthesis is essential when considering an initiative’s potential for widespread implementation. If your goal is to effect change in healthcare or the health system, you’d think most people would demand to see more than the support of one measly study before supporting your cause. Yet, in my experience, it’s often overlooked when people think about KT.

Systematic Reviews: A rigorous approach to knowledge synthesis

There are many types of knowledge synthesis. Most have similar goals, but there are important differences. One of the most common types of knowledge synthesis is the systematic review, which, at its best, is a very rigorous approach. Key components of systematic reviews include:

  • an explicit set of objectives
  • pre-defined eligibility criteria for including studies in the review
  • a defined and reproducible methodology
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies meeting the eligibility criteria
  • an assessment of the validity of the findings in the included studies
  • a systematic presentation of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Key to the systematic component of these reviews is that they are trying to find all available evidence on a topic so that you as the reader can evaluate the full state of the field.

Scoping Reviews: When considering more than RCTs

Most knowledge syntheses that identify as systematic reviews stick primarily to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that can provide high quality evidence (when done well). However, not all research questions lend themselves to RCT designs, and sometimes we still want to synthesize other types of data in rigorous ways. Scoping reviews have evolved to help fill this gap by accommodating a larger range of study designs.

First described in 2005 by Arksey and O’Malley, they ask exploratory research questions aimed at mapping key concepts, as well as types of evidence and gaps in research by systematically searching, selecting, and synthesizing existing knowledge. Scoping reviews may be more iterative than systematic reviews, but methodological standards are evolving. Scoping reviews can often be just as rigorous as systematic reviews.

Where to start your knowledge synthesis for KT

Increasingly, we are moving away from narrative literature reviews towards systematic knowledge syntheses. I recommend to all my students that they should begin their research project with a systematic or scoping review. So where do you start if you want to do one of these reviews?

  • For systematic reviews, the Cochrane Collaboration is regarded as one of the most rigorous approaches. Their handbook is a good point of reference. If you’re at the University of Manitoba, the Knowledge Synthesis platform at CHI offers a graduate course through the Department of Community Health Sciences.
  • For scoping reviews, the definitive references can be found here, here, and here.

Good luck and happy reviewing!

The George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation has it’s own Knowledge Synthesis Platform that works closely with our Knowledge Translation team. You can learn more about them here.

About the Author

The Canada Research Chair in Integrated Knowledge Translation in Rehabilitation Sciences, Kate Sibley is an Assistant Professor with the University of Manitoba’s department of Community Health Sciences, and Scientist within the Centre for Healthcare Innovation’s Knowledge Translation Platform.

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