Objectives To study whether systematic reviewers apply procedures to counter-balance some common forms of research malpractice such as not publishing completed research, duplicate publications, or selective reporting of outcomes, and to see whether they identify and report misconduct.
Design Cross-sectional analysis of systematic reviews and survey of their authors.
Participants 118 systematic reviews published in four journals (Ann Int Med, BMJ, JAMA, Lancet), and the Cochrane Library, in 2013.
Main outcomes and measures Number (%) of reviews that applied procedures to reduce the impact of: (1) publication bias (through searching of unpublished trials), (2) selective outcome reporting (by contacting the authors of the original studies), (3) duplicate publications, (4) sponsors’ and (5) authors’ conflicts of interest, on the conclusions of the review, and (6) looked for ethical approval of the studies. Number (%) of reviewers who suspected misconduct are reported. The procedures applied were compared across journals.
Results 80 (68%) reviewers confirmed their data. 59 (50%) reviews applied three or more procedures; 11 (9%) applied none. Unpublished trials were searched in 79 (66%) reviews. Authors of original studies were contacted in 73 (62%). Duplicate publications were searched in 81 (69%). 27 reviews (23%) reported sponsors of the included studies; 6 (5%) analysed their impact on the conclusions of the review. Five reviews (4%) looked at conflicts of interest of study authors; none of them analysed their impact. Three reviews (2.5%) looked at ethical approval of the studies. Seven reviews (6%) suspected misconduct; only 2 (2%) reported it explicitly. Procedures applied differed across the journals.
Conclusions Only half of the systematic reviews applied three or more of the six procedures examined. Sponsors, conflicts of interest of authors and ethical approval remain overlooked. Research misconduct is sometimes identified, but rarely reported. Guidance on when, and how, to report suspected misconduct is needed.
- systematic review
- ETHICS (see Medical Ethics)
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