Overton Blog

Using Overton to decolonise research

In this blog John Barbrook explains how Overton can be used as a tool for decolonising research. He outlines how the platform can help improve Systematic Review, and how he’s used it in his capacity as librarian to inform the best practice guidance he creates. He identifies features of the app that are especially handy when looking for evidence produced in the Global South.

John is the Faculty Librarian for Health and Medicine, Science and Technology at Lancaster University. He can be contacted at j.barbrook@lancaster.ac.uk and also occasionally tweets @stackingbooks

At Lancaster University there is a lot of activity around decolonisation, both as individuals and via the growing Decolonising Lancaster University Network. You may well be wondering ‘what is decolonisation?’

The Lancaster University library 'Decolonising Literature Searching Guidance' offers this definition:

Decolonisation in universities relates to the “recognition that knowledge and practices in Higher Education have often been formed and shaped by aspects of Western colonialism and racism, and this makes Higher Education an unwelcoming social and intellectual space.”

- Dr Sunita Abraham and Dr Richard Budd.

Recognising this historical context is the first step, but true decolonisation involves challenging these assumptions and practices to make higher education more inclusive, but also to ensure that the creation of knowledge is as unbiased as possible.

On a simple level this means addressing racism in admissions, recruitment and promotion. It means expanding student reading lists beyond the ‘canon’, which is often comprised of the same type of white, Western author. However, in the context of research, decolonising is a slightly more complicated task. It can be very difficult for researchers to even find resources that challenge the dominant position on an issue, due to a historical context in which certain voices are privileged over others.

What does it mean to decolonise literature searching?

As a Faculty Librarian, my role involves purchasing resources, databases and journals that best fit the academic needs of the staff and students. I also promote ‘best practice’ in literature searching, developing guidance to make the research process more effective and its conclusions more reliable. An effective literature search is especially important in the popular specialism of 'Systematic Reviews and Evidence-Based Practice', in which multiple studies are compared with one another to remove bias and subjectivity from one’s results.

As we began to explore how to decolonise our methodologies, we realised that we may need to identify new resources to be utilised in the systemic reviews.

We asked our users for feedback on our new Systematic Review Guidance, and were surprised to learn that our existing databases, such as MEDLINE and CINAHL were limited in their scope – for example, if you are researching topics in the ‘Global South’ the usual databases did not provide all the evidence for a valid qualitative review.

Re-evaluating our theory of research

The introduction of our guidance, provided by Drs Abraham and Budd, states that “decolonising raises a complex set of questions that go beyond merely extending reading lists and it requires us to think about the very nature of the hierarchical relationships in the classroom and supervisory spaces, the forms and effects of the assessments, literatures, theories and methodologies we promote, as well as how we interact with fellow scholars, students and other universities.”

We wondered, then, if our theory of research was part of the problem? In our guidance we encouraged researchers to follow quite a strict methodology via our Systematic Review Guidance, outlining a specific pathway to a good systematic review, with key elements such as ‘highly sensitive searching’ and screening introduced step-by-step to not overwhelm the learner. This idea came from my previous background in the NHS (where everyone loves a Pathway!) and worked well. Systematic Reviews are experiential in nature, and often the best way is to learn by doing, make mistakes and find solutions with the assistance of academics and librarians. But were we recommending the correct steps in our pathway? What was missing?

The problem of using traditional databases

Many of our students were producing qualitative systematic literature reviews focused on countries in the Global South and yet these Global South researchers were under-represented in research. Also, scholarly works released as Open Access were often not available via our systematic searches.

So, along with searching Open Access databases, this required a greater focus on grey literature, policy documents and governmental guidance to retrieve sufficient papers for a review. Grey literature is important because it can reduce the publication bias experienced in our search strategies, by including ‘non-journal’ publications, as well as improving the immediate relevance of a paper (external validity). This usual method of doing this was to search using platforms like Google. However, many students would find the number of results overwhelming, especially as large NGOs are prolific producers of grey literature.

Indeed, even after the journals and grey literature were identified, our researchers found it difficult to produce reviews using traditional databases. There are a few reasons for this:

  • While these databases do allow searchers to effectively limit by country, local organisations in these regions often produced much less literature, due to financial or organisational limitations. As a result, these nation-specific results are sometimes insufficient to accurately compare evidence. What would be more helpful is a tool that allowed the user to compare or cluster grey literature from similar economies or areas.
  • Sometimes the search had a strong bias towards academic papers, and less towards grey literature, limiting its ‘external validity’ or real-world applicability for producing guidelines or service commissioning.

In recognising this problem, we identified the need for a resource that would help researchers ‘surface’ the outputs from smaller organisations, as well as governmental organisations which may have a less stable web presence, occasionally lacking a lot of the features that make a website rank higher in google.

How Overton helps

We selected Overton for two reasons, the first was the interface which bore a similarity to many of our other resources, but the second was the most important - regional groupings

Unlike other traditional databases, Overton allowed the use of regional groupings, where a search can be broadened to similar regional groupings to look for similar grey literature.

Examples such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) allow researchers to limit to emerging market economies, while Arab League filters to countries where most citizens are adherents of Islam. You can easily include literature from countries with similar socioeconomic or religious backgrounds and improve the ‘external validity’ of your work.

But is it just for researchers in the Global South?

So how is this of use to researchers studying in the Global North? There are many examples of guidance produced in Global South countries that can be highly valuable in the UK. Take for example treatments for lifestyle diseases, caused by diet or inactivity. The guidance you can find using traditional research methods might be strongly evidence-based, pharmacological, with interventional treatments and lifestyle modification common recommendations. But by not searching the grey literature output of the global south, we might be ‘missing a trick’. In a multicultural UK, a researcher might get valuable insights from looking at the guidance from countries with similar cultural or religious backgrounds. This evidence might suggest interventions that help improve patient satisfaction within particular communities, or even lower the cost.

So, we are recommending an Overton search in any Qualitative Systematic or Literature Review, along with similar review types, to add an additional level of decolonisation to literature searching and systematic reviews.

Recently the first paper was published Designing a library of lived experience for mental health (LoLEM): protocol for integrating a realist synthesis and experience based codesign approach which included Overton in the grey literature search, a valuable step in introducing better and more decolonised search practices.

What is Overton

We help universities, think tanks and publishers understand the reach and influence of their research.

The Overton platform contains is the world’s largest searchable policy database, with almost 5 million documents from 29k organisations.

We track everything from white papers to think tank policy briefs to national clinical guidelines, and automatically find the references to scholarly research, academics and other outputs.