Publication bias in situ

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2004 Aug 5;4:20. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-4-20.


Background: Publication bias, as typically defined, refers to the decreased likelihood of studies' results being published when they are near the null, not statistically significant, or otherwise "less interesting." But choices about how to analyze the data and which results to report create a publication bias within the published results, a bias I label "publication bias in situ" (PBIS).

Discussion: PBIS may create much greater bias in the literature than traditionally defined publication bias (the failure to publish any result from a study). The causes of PBIS are well known, consisting of various decisions about reporting that are influenced by the data. But its impact is not generally appreciated, and very little attention is devoted to it. What attention there is consists largely of rules for statistical analysis that are impractical and do not actually reduce the bias in reported estimates. PBIS cannot be reduced by statistical tools because it is not fundamentally a problem of statistics, but rather of non-statistical choices and plain language interpretations. PBIS should be recognized as a phenomenon worthy of study - it is extremely common and probably has a huge impact on results reported in the literature - and there should be greater systematic efforts to identify and reduce it. The paper presents examples, including results of a recent HIV vaccine trial, that show how easily PBIS can have a large impact on reported results, as well as how there can be no simple answer to it.

Summary: PBIS is a major problem, worthy of substantially more attention than it receives. There are ways to reduce the bias, but they are very seldom employed because they are largely unrecognized.

MeSH terms

  • AIDS Vaccines
  • Choice Behavior
  • Clinical Trials as Topic*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Odds Ratio
  • Publication Bias*
  • Research Personnel*


  • AIDS Vaccines