Context: Selective reporting of outcomes within published studies based on the nature or direction of their results has been widely suspected, but direct evidence of such bias is currently limited to case reports.
Objective: To study empirically the extent and nature of outcome reporting bias in a cohort of randomized trials.
Design: Cohort study using protocols and published reports of randomized trials approved by the Scientific-Ethical Committees for Copenhagen and Frederiksberg, Denmark, in 1994-1995. The number and characteristics of reported and unreported trial outcomes were recorded from protocols, journal articles, and a survey of trialists. An outcome was considered incompletely reported if insufficient data were presented in the published articles for meta-analysis. Odds ratios relating the completeness of outcome reporting to statistical significance were calculated for each trial and then pooled to provide an overall estimate of bias. Protocols and published articles were also compared to identify discrepancies in primary outcomes.
Main outcome measures: Completeness of reporting of efficacy and harm outcomes and of statistically significant vs nonsignificant outcomes; consistency between primary outcomes defined in the most recent protocols and those defined in published articles.
Results: One hundred two trials with 122 published journal articles and 3736 outcomes were identified. Overall, 50% of efficacy and 65% of harm outcomes per trial were incompletely reported. Statistically significant outcomes had a higher odds of being fully reported compared with nonsignificant outcomes for both efficacy (pooled odds ratio, 2.4; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.4-4.0) and harm (pooled odds ratio, 4.7; 95% CI, 1.8-12.0) data. In comparing published articles with protocols, 62% of trials had at least 1 primary outcome that was changed, introduced, or omitted. Eighty-six percent of survey responders (42/49) denied the existence of unreported outcomes despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Conclusions: The reporting of trial outcomes is not only frequently incomplete but also biased and inconsistent with protocols. Published articles, as well as reviews that incorporate them, may therefore be unreliable and overestimate the benefits of an intervention. To ensure transparency, planned trials should be registered and protocols should be made publicly available prior to trial completion.