The academic and scientific community has reacted at pace to gather evidence to inform decision making about COVID-19. We mapped the nature, scope and quality of evidence syntheses on COVID-19 to explore the relationship between review quality and the extent of researcher, policy and media interest. We found low quality reviews being published at pace, often with short publication turnarounds. Despite lacking robust methods, many of these reviews received substantial attention across both academic and public platforms.
Since the emergence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, there has been a proliferation of research related to its epidemiology, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and impact. Making sense of research by bringing together studies in systematic reviews, with or without meta-analysis, is a well-established method in medicine and health research. However, poorly conducted systematic reviews can lead to inaccurate representations of the evidence, inaccurate estimates of treatment effectiveness, misleading conclusions, and reduced applicability, limiting their usefulness and ultimately contributing to research waste.
Our aims were to map the nature, scope and quality of evidence syntheses on COVID-19 published between December 2019 and July 2020, and, to explore the relationship between review quality and the extent of researcher, policy and media interest to address the following research questions:
1. To what extent are multiple systematic reviews addressing the same research questions being published?
1. What is the methodological and reporting quality of published systematic reviews addressing research questions related to COVID-19?
2. In what ways are established systematic review methods being compromised in an effort to inform transmission, diagnosis, treatment and care of people with COVID-19? And what is the potential impact of these methodological short cuts?
3. To what extent have published systematic reviews addressing COVID-19 research questions received attention from other researchers, policy makers and the media and what is its relationship with the methodological and reporting quality of published systematic reviews?
We conducted a systematic review that included systematic reviews, rapid reviews, overviews and qualitative evidence syntheses addressing research questions relating to COVID-19 and published between December 2019 and June 2020.
Our results show that in the rush to get evidence, there was a significant output of low quality systematic reviews missing cornerstones of best practice. Only a third met the definition of a systematic review according to established criteria and the majority of these had critical flaws.
For example, only a third reported registering a protocol, and less than one in five searched named COVID-19 databases. There was also considerable overlap in the topics of reviews, some with discordant findings. Review conduct and publication was rapid, with many reported as being conducted within three weeks and published within three weeks of submission.
Of more concern, perhaps, was the attention these reviews received as measured through the metrics of citation and media attention.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring rigour in systematic review methods and reporting if these efforts are to be helpful to decision makers. The responsibility for this must fall to us all – researchers, funders, peer reviewers and editors.
- Protocol: PROSPERO Characteristics, quality and volume of the evidence synthesis infodemic – a living systematic review
- Blog: BMJ EBM Spotlight Navigating the COVID-19 infodemic – can we do better?
We plan to conduct a further meta-research study focussed on one specific COVID-19 research question to help to understand the issues faced by, and potential solutions for, the research community in making sense of evidence during a pandemic.
We anticipate that we will have results to share by the end of 2021.