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Everything you need to know about conducting evidence synthesis research

New series of methodological briefs provides invaluable resource for researchers
05 Mar 2020

Health workers in Uganda's Bukomansimbi District Health Headquarters discuss progress in public health data collection via the mTrac ‘dashboard’ website.

(5 March 2020) UNICEF places evidence-informed thinking at the heart of its strategic planning. Evidence is seen as key to understanding the barriers that hold children back, and to developing the solutions that can overcome those barriers to ensure that no child is left behind. In order to build capacity and expand use of evidence synthesis as a tool for improving the situation of the world’s most vulnerable children, UNICEF Innocenti has released a new series of eight methodological briefs on evidence synthesis that will be important resources for global evidence generation efforts. (See full series at right) This series is part of broader efforts by UNICEF Innocenti to support UNICEF staff and partners to appraise, commission, generate, communicate and use research to drive change for children.

There is strong emphasis within UNICEF on the need to generate, communicate and promote the use of evidence and data about child well-being to catalyse change, identifying what does and does not work to achieve results for the most disadvantaged children, and why. The need to promote cooperation, share best practice and lessons learned, and foster innovation between countries and across regions is also recognized.

“We are really excited to see this major series of briefs now being made available to the research and policy development community,” said series principal author Shiv Bakrania. “We think it will go a long way toward de-mystifying the evidence synthesis process and will contribute to building an evidence culture in UNICEF and among its partners.”

The new series is intended to provide guidance on how to undertake, commission and manage evidence synthesis products such as systematic reviews, rapid evidence assessments and evidence gap maps. Evidence synthesis can play an important role in UNICEF’s knowledge management and evidence translation efforts by collating knowledge from multiple studies on what interventions work, and why and how they work. It makes research more accessible and therefore can contribute to evidence-informed programming and policy decisions. The primary audience for these briefs is professionals, including UNICEF staff, who conduct, commission or interpret research and evaluation findings in development contexts to make decisions about policy, programming and advocacy.

Detail of the Evidence Gap Map on Adolescent Well-being in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: Protection, Participation, and Financial and Material Well-Being. Evidence gap maps help identify where there may be gaps in research literature. 

Evidence synthesis can be described as the process of bringing together information and knowledge from a range of sources to inform debates and decisions on specific issues. In these briefs, the term ‘evidence synthesis products’ refers to:

  • Systematic reviews (SRs), which synthesize the findings of single studies
  • Rapid evidence assessments (REAs), which seek to synthesize the findings of single studies quickly when facing urgent policy decisions
  • Evidence gap maps (EGMs), which provide an overview of the existing evidence on a topic, theme or sector to signpost where evidence exists and/or where it is lacking.

While a range of other products fall under the evidence synthesis umbrella, those listed above are the most prominent in the international development arena and the most relevant to UNICEF. Evidence synthesis is increasingly recognized by UNICEF staff as playing a potentially significant role in UNICEF knowledge management and evidence translation efforts through the following means:

  • Mapping available evidence allows for informed decisions to be made about where UNICEF research efforts can be most usefully focused and helps to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’.
  • Evidence synthesis, and knowledge of what works (and what does not work), and why or how things work, is vital for making evidence-informed policy and programme decisions.
  • Evidence synthesis products collate bodies of existing evidence. This allows time-pressed UNICEF staff to gain new insights from the findings of multiple studies, rather than selected single studies, to support their work.
  • Synthesizing the findings of multiple studies also improves accessibility to research for busy UNICEF staff. Indeed, evidence synthesis is seen as a key means of translating, transferring and exchanging knowledge in a manner that can be accessible and understandable for non-specialist programming and policy staff in UNICEF regional and country offices as well as for external partners.

Topics covered in the series

  1. Overview of the series
  2. Introduction to evidence synthesis
  3. Developing and designing an evidence synthesis product
  4. Collating and analyzing studies for synthesis
  5. Commissioning and managing an evidence synthesis project
  6. The future of evidence synthesis and ‘knowledge brokering’
  7. Tools and resources for evidence synthesis
  8. Glossary

For further guidance on evidence synthesis, or to ask about anything covered in these methodological briefs, please contact the author, Shivit Bakrania, or Kerry Albright, Chief of Research Facilitation and Knowledge Management, at: research@unicef.org.


This methodological brief series was written by Shiv Bakrania, knowledge management specialist, UNICEF Innocenti. The series benefited from the guidance and input of many other individuals: Kerry Albright, Chief of Research Facilitation and Knowledge Management, UNICEF Innocenti; Tamara Lotfi, Coordinator of the Secretariat for the Global Evidence Synthesis Initiative, based at the American University of Beirut (GESI); Rhona Mijumbi-Deve, physician, public policy analyst and Founding Director of the Center for Rapid Evidence Synthesis. based at Makarere University in Uganda; Susan Munabi-Babigumira, researcher based at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and an editor with the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care (EPOC) Group; Sandy Oliver, Professor of Public Policy at the EPPI-Centre, University College London, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Africa Centre for Evidence, University of Johannesburg, South Africa; Ramya Subrahmanian, Chief of Child Rights and Protection at UNICEF Innocenti.