Background: Policy makers and others often require synthesis of knowledge in an area within six months or less. Traditional systematic reviews typically take at least 12 months to conduct. Rapid reviews streamline traditional systematic review methods in order to synthesize evidence within a shortened timeframe. There is great variation in the process of conducting rapid reviews. This review sought to examine methods used for rapid reviews, as well as implications of methodological streamlining in terms of rigour, bias, and results.
Methods: A comprehensive search strategy--including five electronic databases, grey literature, hand searching of relevant journals, and contacting key informants--was undertaken. All titles and abstracts (n = 1,989) were reviewed independently by two reviewers. Relevance criteria included articles published between 1995 and 2009 about conducting rapid reviews or addressing comparisons of rapid reviews versus traditional reviews. Full articles were retrieved for any titles deemed relevant by either reviewer (n = 70). Data were extracted from all relevant methodological articles (n = 45) and from exemplars of rapid review methods (n = 25).
Results: Rapid reviews varied from three weeks to six months; various methods for speeding up the process were employed. Some limited searching by years, databases, language, and sources beyond electronic searches. Several employed one reviewer for title and abstract reviewing, full text review, methodological quality assessment, and/or data extraction phases. Within rapid review studies, accelerating the data extraction process may lead to missing some relevant information. Biases may be introduced due to shortened timeframes for literature searching, article retrieval, and appraisal.
Conclusions: This review examined the continuum between diverse rapid review methods and traditional systematic reviews. It also examines potential implications of streamlined review methods. More of these rapid reviews need to be published in the peer-reviewed literature with an emphasis on articulating methods employed. While one consistent methodological approach may not be optimal or appropriate, it is important that researchers undertaking reviews within the rapid to systematic continuum provide detailed descriptions of methods used and discuss the implications of their chosen methods in terms of potential bias introduced. Further research comparing full systematic reviews with rapid reviews will enhance understanding of the limitations of these methods.