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8.2.2  ‘Risk of bias’ and ‘quality’

Bias may be distinguished from quality. The phrase ‘assessment of methodological quality’ has been used extensively in the context of systematic review methods to refer to the critical appraisal of included studies. The term suggests an investigation of the extent to which study authors conducted their research to the highest possible standards. This Handbook draws a distinction between assessment of methodological quality and assessment of risk of bias, and recommends a focus on the latter. The reasons for this distinction include:

  1. The key consideration in a Cochrane review is the extent to which results of included studies should be believed. Assessing risk of bias targets this question squarely.

  2. A study may be performed to the highest possible standards yet still have an important risk of bias. For example, in many situations it is impractical or impossible to blind participants or study personnel to intervention group. It is inappropriately judgemental to describe all such studies as of ‘low quality’, but that does not mean they are free of bias resulting from knowledge of intervention status.

  3. Some markers of quality in medical research, such as obtaining ethical approval, performing a sample size calculation and reporting a study in line with the CONSORT Statement (Moher 2001d), are unlikely to have direct implications for risk of bias.

  4. An emphasis on risk of bias overcomes ambiguity between the quality of reporting and the quality of the underlying research (although does not overcome the problem of having to rely on reports to assess the underlying research).

Notwithstanding these concerns about the term ‘quality’, the term ‘quality of evidence’ is used in ‘Summary of findings’ tables in Cochrane reviews to describe the extent to which one can be confident that an estimate of effect is near the true value for an outcome, across studies, as described in Chapter 11 (Section 11.5)  and Chapter 12 (Section 12.2). The risk of bias in the results of each study contributing to an estimate of effect is one of several factors that must be considered when judging the quality of a body of evidence, as defined in this context.