Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Mapping Studies

Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Mapping Studies

Article excerpt

When I first read about evidence-based practice, I had several thoughts. The first was a somewhat horrified question: Does this mean that medical care has not been based on research? The second question was that if we intend to build a better knowledgebase for this and other professions, how could that happen, if the base (existing research) was not itself evidence based? The image of a house built on sand would not leave my mind.

Throughout the history of librarianship, we have focused our sights on continual improvement. For at least the last twenty years, evidence-based practice has provided an evolving roadmap to increasing awareness of quality and to moving forward using the best, most appropriate, and most rigorous methods we know. To build our base and support decision making, increased awareness of research methods can help to retool a rapidly changing profession.

One such research method is the mapping study, also called a mapping review. Reviews of all kinds are done to gather information to build a base for further research or to inform decision making, and this is equally true of mapping. In the literature of medical librarianship, the best-known examples of mapping studies follow a protocol created in 1993 (updated in 2010 and currently under review) by members of the Medical Library Association (MLA) Nursing and Allied Health Resources Section (NAHRS) Subcommittee on Mapping the Literature of Nursing and Allied Health. Two broad initiatives have been supported by NAHRS to map the literature of nursing and allied health, and task force members have provided the evolving protocol [1] and other support to researchers-members of the task force and beyond-in order to expand the work.


Overall, mapping is a systematic approach to understanding the "map" of a profession, theory, research question, or practice. The term mapping is also used for "concept mapping," which shows how concepts are related in a visual way. Similarly, mapping studies can show how literature is disseminated through journals, books, websites, and other channels. Examples include NAHRS-driven mapping studies on the subspecialty of emergency nursing [2] and the issue of access to healthy foods in rural communities [3]. Depending on the objectives, mapping research involves various degrees of rigor. Beyond library and information science (LIS), it has been used in medical and allied health research, software engineering, education, and public policy, but the NAHRS protocol-driven research appears to be unique to our profession.

Most readers may be familiar with literature reviews done to provide a background and rationale for research, usually found after the introduction and before the methods section of a paper. Other literature reviews may themselves be the focus of an entire publication. The process used to find the works referenced in these types of literature reviews is not usually discussed, and the reader usually has no way to know whether the search for background information has been comprehensive or whether the cited works are quality research. As a result, bias can be introduced because of the author's choice of literature reviewed, and ultimately, time for the researcher and readers might be wasted if the new work is a replication or if it is based on biased or faulty research.

If we can consider that review types occupy a spectrum in terms of comprehensiveness, transparency in methodology, and rigor, systematic reviews are at the far end of the scale that begins with the generic literature reviews described above. Both systematic reviews and meta-analyses follow carefully documented protocols, retrieving, categorizing, and then statistically synthesizing research done in a narrow topical area to draw conclusions for best practices.

Other review types measure the impact of theories or authors on the literature (critical reviews) or identify the most likely journals and database resources for specific topics (mapping studies using the NAHRS protocol). …

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