(Mis)trusting Health Research Synthesis Studies: Exploring Transformations of 'Evidence'
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis explores the transformations of evidence in health research synthesis studies – studies that bring together evidence from a number of research reports on the same/ similar topic. It argues that health research synthesis is a broad and intriguing field in a state of pre-formation, in spite of the fact that it may appear well established if equated with its exemplar method – the systematic review inclusive of meta-analysis. Transformations of evidence are processes by which pieces of evidence are modified from what they are in the primary study report into what is needed in the synthesis study while, supposedly, having their integrity fully preserved. Such processes have received no focused attention in the literature. Yet they are key to the validity and reliability of synthesis studies. This work begins to describe them and explore their frequency, scope and drivers. A ‘meta-scientific’ perspective is taken, where ‘meta-scientific’ is understood to include primarily ideas from the philosophy of science and methodological texts in health research, and, to a lesser extent, social studies of science and psychology of science thinking. A range of meta-scientific ideas on evidence and factors that shape it guide the analysis of processes of “data extraction” and “coding” during which much evidence is transformed. The core of the analysis involves the application of an extensive Analysis Framework to 17 highly heterogeneous research papers on cancer. Five non-standard ‘injunctions’ complement the Analysis Framework – for comprehensiveness, extensive multiple coding, extreme transparency, combination of critical appraisal and critique, and for first coding as close as possible to the original and then extending towards larger transformations. Findings suggest even lower credibility of the current overall model of health research synthesis than initially expected. Implications are discussed and a radical vision for the future proposed.
Economic and Social Research Concil
PhD in Philosophy