A cross-sectional analysis of the use of data visualisation in scoping reviews and evidence maps

Article type
South E1, Rodgers M1
1Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York

Scoping reviews are well-suited to visually presenting data due to their focus on mapping evidence. A wide range of data visualisation methods and tools are available to researchers, including tools to create interactive data visualisations. Interactive data visualisation allows easy presentation of multiple variables and the exploration of hierarchal data at different levels. It is unknown how many scoping reviews visually map data or which methods they use.


To explore the use of data visualisation methods in a large sample of recent scoping reviews and evidence maps on health topics.


A search for scoping reviews and evidence maps was undertaken in Ovid MEDLINE ALL (June 2020-May 2021). Search results were screened against basic selection criteria. Data were extracted on review aim (mapping evidence vs. answering a specific research question) and the use of visualisation in a sample of 300 recent scoping reviews or evidence maps. Descriptive data analysis was undertaken on reviews that aimed to map evidence.


238 reviews in the sample aimed to map evidence. Most of these reviews were described as “scoping reviews” (97.9%). A minority of reviews included any data visualisation (37.8%). In total 222 individual examples of data visualisation were identified, using 35 different methods across the sample. Only two reviews used interactive data visualisation. Many data visualisations were simple bar charts, pie charts or cross-tabulations (60.8%). Only 9.5% of data visualisations presented more than two different variables.


Data visualisation is under-used by scoping review authors. The data visualisations in published reviews tend to be simple, static, and illustrate only one or two variables. In particular, scoping review authors could make much greater use of free online software to present their results using interactive online data visualisations (see Figure 1 for an example of what is possible).

Relevance to patients

Scoping reviews can identify both existing evidence and gaps in evidence that are important to patients, decision-makers and research commissioners. Better use of engaging data visualisation could make scoping reviews more user-friendly for patients and other stakeholders.