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Rapid Reviews: the easier and speedier way to evaluate papers, but with some limitations

Posted on 24th September 2020 by

Tutorials and Fundamentals

When it comes to reviewing literature there are many different strategies. These vary in their complexity and timescale. As students, the type we are most likely to be able to perform is the rapid review – but what exactly does this entail?

Systematic Reviews

Systematic reviews are the long, detailed papers we commonly have to read. They bring together evidence from sometimes hundreds of different sources to identify corroborating and conflicting results, synthesise data and inform areas for future research. They take up to a year or more to produce with 2 or more people involved.

Rapid Reviews

A rapid review uses shortcuts in the systematic review process, but should still be rigorous and they need to ask a very focused question. You can also have updates of existing reviews incorporating data published since the previous review.

Pros and Cons

Pros: They take much less time to produce and the workload is suitable for a smaller number of reviewers than a full systematic review, hence their suitability for students. They still need a rigorous search method to identify new data to include, however, concessions in breadth and depth of evaluation are made.

Cons: Taking methodological shortcuts does leave rapid reviews more vulnerable to bias and errors. For example, the search for existing studies may be less comprehensive. It can be difficult to access all the literature if it is restricted or in a different language, exposing it to publication bias. The review should include details of these concessions and challenges to give context to any of the claims made.

The writing process

The process of performing a rapid review is laid out below:

    •Ask a focused question. Try using the PICO method (Population/Intervention/Comparison/Outcome).
    •Identify the last systematic review of data answering your question.
    •Perform a literature search for relevant papers written since the last review, using different iterations, spellings, and phrases.
    •Use limits on your search to narrow down to papers in your timeframe, language, and study design.
    •If required, repeat with other search databases.
    •Go through each paper you have identified and read their abstracts.
    •Discard those that are not the required study design or sufficiently relevant to your question.
    •Check you can access all of the remaining studies.
    •The process up to now should have left you with a manageable number of studies.
    •Read the full articles in detail, as many times as you have to. Make notes on them highlighting their methods, and key similarities and differences to the other papers.
    •Organise similar studies so they are discussed together and compared.
    •Write a clear conclusions paragraph. Explore any differences between the conclusions you draw and the results of the previous systematic review. Think about why any differences may have occurred, for example changes of policy.
    •Make sure to include a paragraph detailing your search criteria and process.
    •Your methods and reasons for them should be clearly outlined. We have said that rapid reviews can be shorter and less in-depth but the shortcuts you have taken must be explained.
    •Write about what you think the limitations of your methods are.
    •In a separate paragraph, usually at the end, you should discuss what the limitations of the studies themselves are and how these may have affected your conclusions.
    •It can be easier to leave writing your abstract until the very end, as it needs to be clear and concise. Once you have analysed all of your data and come to your conclusions it is far easier to summarise your work than at the beginning. Starting is always the hardest part, and abstracts are not easy to write anyway.


Here are some examples of published rapid reviews that may help you, particularly look at how they have detailed their methods and search strategies:

Hu et al., (2016): Cisplatin for testicular germ cell tumors: a rapid review

Kreindler et al., (2016): Patient characteristics associated with longer emergency department stay: a rapid review

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for evidence is more urgent, making rapid reviews a very popular choice. One example from Public Health Scotland is: Rapid Review of the literature: Assessing the infection prevention and control measures for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in healthcare settings

An article by Grant and Booth (2009) highlights the key differences between different review types and was very helpful for writing this blog.

References (pdf)

Feature image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 


Georgina Ford

Final year medical student in York and Neuroscience graduate from Leeds. View more posts from Georgina

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