An impact study published on 13 December 2021 in the journal PLOS ONE reveals that systematic reviews increase the transparency and quality of animal research. Accordingly, systematic reviews contribute to better animal research, increase the quality of medical research and contribute to open science. In 2012, ZonMw started to fund the training, coaching and conduct of systematic reviews for animal research.

Better design of animal research

In a systematic review or systematic reviews of animal studies, a researcher creates a thorough and complete overview of all previously published research carried out within a certain subject. Such a systematic review into the design, realisation, results and conclusions of studies reveals the quality of the research realised, the suitability of a certain model, and whether data are missing, amongst other aspects. This knowledge subsequently helps researchers to set up their own animal research and to make a choice for a specific animal model. That can be realised, for example, by investigating which knowledge is already available and which model would be the most suitable for a specific research question. By doing this, the researchers increase the quality of their own research: ‘I was just much more mindful about the blinding, randomisation, the sources of bias. We put an enormous amount of effort into doing that properly’, said one of the researchers interviewed.

Preventing research waste

In addition, researchers who use a systematic review prevent the unnecessary repetition of research (research waste) and increase the chance that animal research is worthwhile and effective (preventing animal waste). The benefit of systematic reviews is broader than merely a better research design and the prevention of animal waste. It leads to better and more transparent research reports and consequently to better drugs and treatments.

Effect on three levels: team, research field and science

Systematic reviews also stimulate more than just the quality of the research with laboratory animals. ‘It made me really more aware of why you [would] want to use animals and in what way. And even though in my own research I would want to do it in a good way, I saw that we also have flaws, and it made me more aware of what you’re actually doing when you’re doing animal research’, states one of the participants from the impact study. The study reveals that researchers who perform a systematic review also acquire an exemplary role in their research team. They share their knowledge about systematic reviews and their new insights on study quality, thus training their colleagues. The coached and trained researchers also make for good ambassadors for better research. Based on their positive experiences, they call for systematic reviews to be performed more often and in greater numbers. With this and their review findings, they inspire colleagues in their research field, e.g., improve model choice, stimulate the conduct of new primary studies and reviews. Finally, by including the method of systematic reviews in the education and training of researchers, systematic reviews can become structurally embedded in scientific research. Research funding bodies and ethics committees could include systematic reviews in the conditions for grant proposals submitted by researchers. This could help systematic reviews become a recurring important instrument for good research and the standard for responsible science.

Better and more reliable animal research

For the impact study, the authors of the article in PLOS ONE disseminated an online questionnaire among project leaders in the ZonMw research programme More Knowledge with Fewer Animals (MKMD). These project leaders had received funding for training and coaching in and the conduct of a systematic review. Furthermore, an in-depth interview was held with eight of these researchers. Although the positive results from the impact study are a consequence of the combination training- coaching-conduct and involve only a limited number of respondents, the conclusions are positive: systematic reviews lead to better animal research and more reliable results. The results of the impact study can be read in PLOS ONE.

Transition to animal-free innovations

With the programme More Knowledge with Fewer Animals, ZonMw is facilitating the transition to innovations without the use of animals and, in so doing, contributes to the TPI platform (Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. In addition, the MKMD programme also offers a module for infrastructure. This module was created for the conduct of systematic reviews and to encourage the open access publication of negative or neutral results from animal research. Within this module, researchers can also request funding for a systematic review workshop.

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