A (very) provocative essay about systematic reviews

Via O’Reilly Ideas

Systematic reviews still the best method to validate (with some degree of certainty) any theory, but this is not a silver bullet.

Context: Currently, most systematic reviews and meta-analyses are done retrospectively with fragmented published information. This article aims to explore the growth of published systematic reviews and meta-analyses and to estimate how often they are redundant, misleading, or serving conflicted interests.

Methods: Data included information from PubMed surveys and from empirical evaluations of meta-analyses.

Findings: Publication of systematic reviews and meta-analyses has increased rapidly. In the period January 1, 1986, to December 4, 2015, PubMed tags 266,782 items as “systematic reviews” and 58,611 as “meta-analyses.” Annual publications between 1991 and 2014 increased 2,728% for systematic reviews and 2,635% for meta-analyses versus only 153% for all PubMed-indexed items. Currently, probably more systematic reviews of trials than new randomized trials are published annually. Most topics addressed by meta-analyses of randomized trials have overlapping, redundant meta-analyses; same topic meta-analyses may exceed 20 sometimes. Some fields produce massive numbers of meta-analyses; for example, 185 meta-analyses of antidepressants for depression were published between 2007 and 2014. These meta-analyses are often produced either by industry employees or by authors with industry ties and results are aligned with sponsor interests. China has rapidly become the most prolific producer of English-language, PubMed-indexed meta-analyses. The most massive presence of Chinese meta-analyses is on genetic associations (63% of global production in 2014), where almost all results are misleading since they combine fragmented information from mostly abandoned era of candidate genes. Furthermore, many contracting companies working on evidence synthesis receive industry contracts to produce meta-analyses, many of which probably remain unpublished. Many other meta-analyses have serious flaws. Of the remaining, most have weak or insufficient evidence to inform decision making. Few systematic reviews and meta-analyses are both non-misleading and useful.

Conclusions: The production of systematic reviews and meta-analyses has reached epidemic proportions. Possibly, the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta-analyses are unnecessary, misleading, and/or conflicted.