Welcome to the IPPO Living Map: a systematic way of keeping track of social science research on COVID-19

The IPPO Living Map has been created by UCL’s EPPI-Centre to help policymakers make sense of all the research that is amassing on the social impacts of COVID-19. Although the widespread use of systematic maps is relatively new, their role is increasingly understood and valued

By Professor David Gough, Director of the EPPI-Centre and an IPPO Co-investigator

So much research that it is difficult to keep track

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many complex challenges for society. In response, there has been a remarkable investment of energy and resources into new studies on the effects of the pandemic, and strategies to prevent or mitigate such effects.

Much of this work has been on health issues such as the spread of infection and the development of treatments and preventive vaccines. But there has also been a very significant investment in social science research on the psychological, social and economic risks, harms and responses to the pandemic. Indeed, some people say there have been several hundred thousand studies on COVID-19, which is exceptional considering the slow nature of research and the relatively short time since the pandemic has been with us.

Research findings are a special form of information created through critical rigorous enquiry; they can inform policy, practice and personal decisions. But there is so much research being undertaken that is difficult to keep track of what has been studied.

Systematic maps are a rigorous way of providing that information, enabling easy access to the research studies. They clarify the extent that different aspects of the problem have been studied, and how they have been studied. And they reveal ‘evidence gaps’ of what has not been studied (or not studied in the most useful way), and hence what needs to be followed up with further research.

Systematic maps systematically ‘map out’ a research field. While often presented graphically, they are essentially specialised research databases – created through the searching for and identification of relevant research, followed by coding the studies on a set number of variables of interest. Although the widespread use of systematic maps is relatively new, their role in being part of the infrastructure for research is now being understood. Other examples of their use are in international development and homelessness.

The impact of automation and machine learning

I undertook my first systematic maps about 20 years ago, on studies on the effects of travel on children and on student self-directed learning. While these were very laborious efforts taking much time and effort, automation has subsequently made the processes a bit easier. Machine learning can now help in checking that studies found in the search for research really are relevant for inclusion in the map. Automation can also assist in updating the map as new studies are produced.

In our own work, we search for studies using Microsoft Academic Graph (MAG), which scans the web for research reports on websites and specialised academic bibliographic databases. Every two weeks, MAG automatically informs us of new studies which we check and (if appropriate) code and add to the map. As the map is being continually updated, it is called a ‘living map’. For the last year, we have been creating a living map on health research for the Department of Health. The IPPO Living Map is a new addition.

How we developed the IPPO Living Map

This new map is a living map on social science research on COVID-19. We had originally planned for it to be a map of all primary social science research, but found there were thousands of studies and not all were terribly useful or relevant. For example, there were many small-sample surveys of the effects of the pandemic on schoolchildren or health and care workers in particular parts of different countries. While these small surveys may benefit local decision-making, they were less likely on their own to be of broader interest.

We therefore decided to limit the map to systematic reviews – where others had already identified, sorted and synthesized the literature on different topics. We did, though, define ‘systematic’ very broadly, so that all reviews that described their search and inclusion strategies could be included. We code the reviews on the basis of topic, research question and method, people studied, and whether they are associated with any policy responses to COVID-19 (so we can also link the studies to the maps of policy responses by our IPPO partners, the Blavatnik School of Government and INGSA).

The IPPO Living Map already includes more than 300 such reviews. One example is a rapid systematic review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19, by Maria Loades and colleagues (2020). This was coded (and therefore can be found by searching the map) as: children and young people; mental health and wellbeing; all gender; study of the nature and extent of a phenomena; policy responses of school closures and of stay-at-home requirements. The identification of this review led IPPO to invite Dr Loades to be the lead author on our ‘Rapid Answer’ on how summer support programmes for schoolchildren should be designed and structured.

A useful resource for both decision-makers and academics

We hope the IPPO Living Map proves a useful resource for decision-makers wishing to access summaries of the evidence base on different COVID-19 issues. Reviews of the evidence are likely to be of more benefit to decision-makers than individual studies which may be not representative of all that is known on an issue, or may have methodological limitations.

In addition, the Living Map should also be of use to academics wishing to keep up to date with research and plan future studies. It shows what topics have been systematically reviewed, and identifies the primary studies included in those reviews.

The map will continue to expand. We already have 47,000 studies in our living map of health research – and this is increasing by about a thousand studies a week. In comparison, the IPPO Living Map on social science research is much smaller because we only include reviews, but it too will grow in size over time.

It is also likely to change in focus. In the early stages of the pandemic, energy has been spent on identifying and measuring social harms. As time goes by, there is likely to be increased study of the efforts to mitigate those harms – including re-examining longstanding policies and practices that COVID-19 has led people to reassess. The Living Map should therefore become an increasingly useful resource for accessing and monitoring social science research evidence on policy responses to the pandemic.