8.14.2  Assessing risk of bias from selective reporting of outcomes

Although the possibility of between-study publication bias can be examined only by considering a complete set of studies (see Chapter 10), the possibility of within-study selective outcome reporting can be examined for each study included in a systematic review. The following considerations may help review authors assess whether outcome reporting is sufficiently complete and transparent to protect against bias using the Collaboration’s tool (Section 8.5).


Statistical methods to detect within-study selective reporting are, as yet, not well developed. There are, however, other ways of detecting such bias although a thorough assessment is likely to be labour intensive. If the protocol is available, then outcomes in the protocol and published report can be compared. If not, then outcomes listed in the methods section of an article can be compared with those whose results are reported. If non-significant results are mentioned but not reported adequately, bias in a meta-analysis is likely to occur. Further information can also be sought from authors of the study reports, although it should be realized that such information may be unreliable (Chan 2004a).


Some differences between protocol and publication may be explained by legitimate changes to the protocol. Although such changes should be reported in publications, none of the 150 studies in the two samples of Chan et al. did so (Chan 2004a, Chan 2004b).


Review authors should look hard for evidence of collection by study investigators of a small number of key outcomes that are routinely measured in the area in question, and report which studies report data on these and which do not. Review authors should consider the reasons why data might be missing from a meta-analysis (Williamson 2005b). Methods for seeking such evidence are not well-established, but we describe some possible strategies.


A useful first step is to construct a matrix indicating which outcomes were recorded in which studies, for example with rows as studies and columns as outcomes. Complete and incomplete reporting can also be indicated. This matrix will show to the review authors which studies did not report outcomes reported by most other studies.


PubMed, other major reference databases and the internet should be searched for a study protocol; in rare cases the web address will be given in the study report. Alternatively, and more often in the future as mandatory registration of trials becomes more common, a detailed description of the study may be available in a trial registry. Abstracts of presentations relating to the study may contain information about outcomes not subsequently mentioned in publications. In addition, review authors should examine carefully the methods section of published articles for details of outcomes that were assessed.


Of particular interest is missing information that seems sure to have been recorded. For example, some measurements are expected to appear together, such as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, so we should wonder why if only one is reported. An alternative example is a study reporting the proportion of participants whose change in a continuous variable exceeded some threshold; the investigators must have had access to the raw data and so could have shown the results as mean and SD of the changes. Williamson et al. give several examples, including a Cochrane review in which nine trials reported the outcome treatment failure but only five reported mortality. Yet mortality was part of the definition of treatment failure so those data must have been collected in the four trials missing from the analysis of mortality. Bias was suggested by the marked difference in results for treatment failure for trials with or without separate reporting of mortality (Williamson 2005a).


When there is suspicion of or direct evidence for selective outcome reporting it is desirable to ask the study authors for additional information. For example, authors could be asked to supply the study protocol and full information for outcomes reported inadequately. In addition, for outcomes mentioned in article or protocol but not reported, they could be asked to clarify whether those outcome measures were in fact analysed, and if so to supply the data.


It is not generally recommended to try to ‘adjust for’ reporting bias in the main meta-analysis. Sensitivity analysis is a better approach to investigate the possible impact of selective outcome reporting (Hutton 2000, Williamson 2005a).


The assessment of risk of bias due to selective reporting of outcomes should be made for the study as a whole, rather than for each outcome. Although it may be clear for a particular study that some specific outcomes are subject to selective reporting while others are not, we recommend the study-level approach because it is not practical to list all fully reported outcomes in the ‘Risk of bias’ table. The ‘support for judgement’ part of the tool (see Section 8.5.2) should be used to describe the outcomes for which there is particular evidence of selective (or incomplete) reporting. The study-level judgement provides an assessment of the overall susceptibility of the study to selective reporting bias.