Recursive cumulative meta-analysis: a diagnostic for the evolution of total randomized evidence from group and individual patient data

J Clin Epidemiol. 1999 Apr;52(4):281-91. doi: 10.1016/s0895-4356(98)00159-0.


Meta-analyses of randomized evidence may include published, unpublished, and updated data in an ongoing estimation process that continuously accommodates more data. Synthesis may be performed either with group data or with meta-analysis of individual patient data (MIPD). Although MIPD with updated data is considered the gold standard of evidence, there is a need for a careful study of the impact different sources of data have on a meta-analysis and of the change in the treatment effect estimates over sequential information steps. Unpublished data and late-appearing data may be different from early-appearing data. Updated information after the end of the main study follow-up may be affected by cross-overs, missing information, and unblinding. The estimated treatment effect may thus depend on the completeness and updating of the available evidence. To address these issues, we present recursive cumulative meta-analysis (RCM) as an extension of cumulative metaanalysis. Recursive cumulative meta-analysis is based on the principle of recalculating the results of a cumulative meta-analysis with each new or updated piece of information and focuses on the evolution of the treatment effect as a more complete and updated picture of the evidence becomes available. An examination of the perturbations of the cumulative treatment effect over sequential information steps may signal the presence of bias or heterogeneity in a meta-analysis. Recursive cumulative meta-analysis may suggest whether there is a true underlying treatment effect to which the meta-analysis is converging and how treatment effects are sequentially altered by new or modified evidence. The method is illustrated with an example from the conduct of an MIPD on acyclovir in human immunodeficiency virus infection. The relative strengths and limitations of both metaanalysis of group data and MIPD are discussed through the RCM perspective.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Acyclovir / therapeutic use
  • Antiviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Methods
  • Publication Bias
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • Research Design


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Acyclovir