By Emily Britton
A group of students and researchers at Algonquin College has teamed up with CHEO to create a new software platform aimed at speeding up the often-laborious process of reviewing scientific research.
Launched in 2017, insightScope allows researchers, students, health-care professionals and citizen scientists to collaborate online to conduct systematic reviews of scientific literature. Such reviews are a regular part of the scientific process, allowing doctors and researchers to stay on top of the latest developments in medicine and other fields and help determine courses of treatment.
But the process of spending long, gruelling hours poring over citations and studies can often take months, or even years. As a result, many systematic reviews are abandoned or are already out of date before they’re even published.
Now, insightScope is looking to help scientists and health-care professionals minimize the time they spend on systematic reviews by making it easier for larger teams of researchers to work together online.
Co-founder Dr. Dayre McNally, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a clinical investigator at the CHEO Research Institute, first started thinking about the concept after receiving emails from students, nurses, pharmacists and respiratory therapists asking to be involved with research.
“I had all these different students and health-care providers coming to me saying that they wanted to help with research but didn’t know how to,” says McNally. “Then on the other side of the coin, we had professors, clinicians, scientific bodies and policy-makers who wanted to do these systematic reviews but didn’t have time to do them quickly.”
The idea really came to life in 2016 after one of McNally’s students published a large systematic review that took a year to complete. Convinced there had to be a more efficient way of conducting reviews, McNally and the student found software to create the platform and did a proof of concept study with medical students, residents and nurses at the University of Ottawa. They eventually received a research grant from CHEO.
In 2017, McNally met Kevin Holmes, now the managing director of Algonquin College’s Social Innovation Hub, at a Hacking Health event. Holmes was intrigued with McNally’s vision, and the two decided to work together on the project.
Since then, more than a dozen Algonquin College software development students, four graphic design students and four researchers from CHEO have been recruited to help build the platform. “Some of the students graduated and went on to other careers, some graduated and stayed with us for a little while,” says Holmes. “So we keep bringing on new students because it’s a really good learning opportunity for them as well.”
While researchers and scientists have traditionally wanted to do most of the work on systematic reviews themselves, Holmes says more and more people in the scientific community are realizing the benefits of the platform.
“We actually proved you could use a crowd, and the crowd would give you the same results,” he says.
Holmes says individuals, researchers and investigators join the platform for a variety of reasons, including the chance to gain more experience doing reviews, a desire to help the medical community and the potential to author research papers.
Whatever their motives, money definitely isn’t one of them, he adds.
“Medical literature is different,” says Holmes. “We’re not trying to pay people to do it. We’re trying to tap into their interests and expertise.”
One of the most recent reviews McNally has worked on is related to the shortage of medical masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the platform analyzed studies of whether masks could be decontaminated using UV light, allowing them to be reused.
Nassr Nama, a pediatric resident at British Columbia Children’s Hospital, was part of the original development team and has overseen the largest systematic review to date for insightScope.
Nama needed a review of research on urinary tract infections among children in the first three months of life so he could determine how long the children should be given antibiotics. The project had 10,000 citations that needed to be reviewed.
“We wanted to do this as rapidly as possible, and that’s where insightScope was very helpful,” he says. “We were able to recruit around 20 people from 12 to 14 countries.”
All of the data collected from Nama’s project – and other reviews that get completed with insightScope – is put into a database so it can be reviewed again in the future as science and medical technology evolves.
As for now, Holmes says people want to be engaged in the scientific process, and if it’s easy enough for them, they will make their skills available.
“That’s really what software does,” he says. “It makes it easy for other people to participate in essentially determining the future of medicine.”