Research Culture - Research Design: Rapid Review

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We are really pleased to bring you this post about the work that is underway at the University to look at our research culture and explore ways that we can enhance this. The focus of this blog post is 'Research Design', one of the pillars of our research culture work. See also the introductory research culture blog post, from Professor Julie Barnett, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) who is leading on this initiative.

As part of this work, we are looking at ways we can support colleagues to diversify the methods and approaches they are using in their research and knowledge exchange activities. One of the areas that we are providing training on is rapid reviews, which can be a very useful way to provide timely information to support key decisions, respond to calls for evidence from policy makers and answer urgent questions. More on our most recent training.

This post by Holly Waring, a Master's student in the Department of Psychology, who has been working alongside Dr Emma Gibbard, Research Impact Manager in Research and Innovation Services (RIS), on a short-term project, explores the benefits of these reviews and when they might be appropriate.

Have you considered these kinds of reviews in your work, or would you like to learn more? If so, leave a comment below or drop the Research Impact team a line.

Rapid reviews and why you should consider doing one

The number of rapid reviews published have surged in recent times. Why is this? The current foundation of evidence synthesis, systematic reviews, are costly, timely and very quickly outdated. Rapid reviews accelerate the traditional systematic review process and provide a timely and efficient alternative way to provide robust answers to urgent research questions.

Systematic reviews are favoured by clinicians, policymakers and managers to inform important decision making. Whilst systematic reviews are thought to yield the most trustworthy and high-quality evidence, the vigorous methods employed are not so advantageous when it can take over a year to deliver. The lengthy turn-around limits the ability to use the systematic review to inform decisions as important judgments cannot afford to wait two years for an answer. Plus, by the time the systematic review is eventually published, the evidence is often outdated!

A useful solution to these downfalls, which can take just 8 weeks to produce, is the increasingly popular rapid review. To speed up the process of the review, components of the traditional systematic review may be omitted or simplified. Whilst systematic reviews are considered the ‘gold standard’ of evidence synthesis, research comparing the conclusions of traditional systematic reviews and rapid reviews found that the conclusions did not vary. Therefore, the efficiency and validity of the rapid review makes it an ideal method for clinicians and policymakers to base their decisions on and advise on novel an emerging topic.

Given this, it is unsurprising that rapid review publications have surged since COVID-19. The novelty of this disease sparked a record number of clinical questions that required prompt responses. A rapid review which received noteworthy attention from other researchers and policymakers was conducted here at the University of Bath by Dr Maria Loades and her colleagues. Their aim was to assess the impact of social isolation and loneliness on young people’s mental health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article received a great deal of impact with 1101 Google Scholar citations, as well as being cited by key policy organisations such as the British Government, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and many more across the globe.

Nonetheless, rapid reviews can be conducted for a number of reasons, which lends them to a range of disciplines, other than Health and Social Care. For example, they can be used for updating previous reviews, examining new or emerging research topics or to assess what is already known about a topic in a timely manner. Researchers at the University of Leeds conducted a rapid review to analyse the impact of hedgerow planting and enhancement on biodiverse abundance and richness measures. The findings of this research are being used to help the government achieve their 2050 Net Zero goals and mitigate the effects of climate change.

However, some academics are sceptical of this type of evidence synthesis, believing this could be a threat to scholarly rigour. It should be emphasised that rapid reviews should NOT be less systematic and should still include the core principles of systematic reviews to minimise bias. Instead, shortcuts which maintain rigour could include, providing less in-depth recommendations, using only narrative to synthesise findings, reducing the scope of the research question or employ a larger team of academics. For more shortcut ideas, read this informative rapid review blog post by Jonathan Breckon. Rapid in-depth reviews need to be published in the best journals and most influential places to reach your intended audience and so thought needs to be given to the place where the review will be published as well as the research methodology.

Guidelines are beginning to be developed to improve the rigour of rapid reviews. For example, the Cochrane collaboration constructed the Cochrane Rapid Review method groups which have established a set of recommendations and minimum standard for rapid reviews. Furthermore, in response to the demands from policymakers for swift summaries, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and technology have collaborated with capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) to run a year-long pilot project to guide how academic rigour can maintained under the pressure of policy demand.

Having explored this method in more detail and observing the potential impact of the rapid review, this is definitely a method I would be keen to implement into my own work. Following the publication from her own work, Dr Maria Loades said:

“Of all the reviews I have done, this felt like the one with the biggest immediate relevance, attracting huge media globally, and since having translated into wide-ranging impacts – with high academic and policy citations.”

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For further information and support please contact the Research Policy and Information team in RIS


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