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In this blog interview Professor Mike Clarke shares with us which systematic review that he’s led or been involved in he would choose to take with him to read, if he was stranded on a desert island.

Can you introduce yourself and share your role in the MSc EBHC (Systematic Reviews) program?

I’m Mike Clarke, based in the Centre for Public Health in Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. I developed and introduced the Systematic Reviews module for the MSc in EBHC more than 20 years ago and have had the pleasure of helping the students with more than 500 systematic review topics they’ve brought into the module since then. We took the module online in May 2020 and I continue to be the sole tutor on its online offerings.

If you were stranded on a "Desert Island", which systematic review that you have led or been involved in might you take with you to read?
I’d take Methods to increase response to postal and electronic questionnaires. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2023;(11):MR000008. This is the fourth update of a Cochrane review that was first published in October 2003.

What type of review was it?
It’s a Cochrane methodology review of randomised trials investigating the effects of interventions intended to increase response rates for postal and electronic questionnaires.

Why did you choose this review?
When we started work on the review, it was one of the largest Cochrane reviews in terms of included studies, and it’s now the largest ever. It contains so many studies that if I thought about a single included study on each day on the desert island, it would take me more than two years to get through them all. All that evidence might also help me to choose effective ways to encourage people to get in touch with me and answer my questions as I waited to leave the island.

What did your review show?
In two words “a lot”, with information for 187 different strategies for boosting response rates. The biggest benefits were that the odds of response to a postal questionnaire doubled when using monetary incentives, a telephone reminder and placing clinical outcome questions last, The odds of response to an electronic questionnaire tripled when using a brief rather than a detailed letter and when a picture was included in an email, with the odds almost doubled by using monetary incentives or having a more interesting topic.

What did you particularly enjoy about the review?
Firstly, we’ve been able to provide a really comprehensive evidence base to help people boost their response rates to questionnaires and surveys. This will be helpful for trials and other types of health research, but also in many other sectors. It was also great to be able to include an early example of embedded methodology research when we worked on the first version of the review in order to explore the benefits of having different numbers of people screen articles for eligibility. We now call these SWAR (Study Within a Review).  

Reflecting on your review, what one learning would you offer individuals completing a systematic review for the first time?
Choose a question that you are really keen to answer, so that when the slog of screening articles, extracting data and assessing risk of bias gets tiring, you are motivated to keep going to get your answer and are able to say “that’s really interesting” every so often as you find out new things. Also, if you get a chance to embed a SWAR, do so, so that not only will you answer your research question you’ll add to the evidence base on how to do reviews better.

Finally, If you were stranded on a "Desert Island" and about to read your review, what one food or drink treat would you bring with you?
This one’s easy because I can give the answer I gave when I was asked the disconcerting question of “what would you like to do before you die?” as the warmup for a talk I gave in Northern Ireland many years ago. It would be a nice Bordeaux red wine, ideally Chateau Petrus if I can choose something I’ve always wanted to try but have never been able to.

You can learn more about the MSc EBHC (Systematic Reviews) programme through the dedicated webpage or by contacting

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CEBM as a group.