Statistically significant meta-analyses of clinical trials have modest credibility and inflated effects

J Clin Epidemiol. 2011 Oct;64(10):1060-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2010.12.012. Epub 2011 Mar 31.


Objective: To assess whether nominally statistically significant effects in meta-analyses of clinical trials are true and whether their magnitude is inflated.

Study design and setting: Data from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005 (issue 4) and 2010 (issue 1) were used. We considered meta-analyses with binary outcomes and four or more trials in 2005 with P<0.05 for the random-effects odds ratio (OR). We examined whether any of these meta-analyses had updated counterparts in 2010. We estimated the credibility (true-positive probability) under different prior assumptions and inflation in OR estimates in 2005.

Results: Four hundred sixty-one meta-analyses in 2005 were eligible, and 80 had additional trials included by 2010. The effect sizes (ORs) were smaller in the updating data (2005-2010) than in the respective meta-analyses in 2005 (median 0.85-fold, interquartile range [IQR]: 0.66-1.06), even more prominently for meta-analyses with less than 300 events in 2005 (median 0.67-fold, IQR: 0.54-0.96). Mean credibility of the 461 meta-analyses in 2005 was 63-84% depending on the assumptions made. Credibility estimates changed >20% in 19-31 (24-39%) of the 80 updated meta-analyses.

Conclusions: Most meta-analyses with nominally significant results pertain to truly nonnull effects, but exceptions are not uncommon. The magnitude of observed effects, especially in meta-analyses with limited evidence, is often inflated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / standards*
  • Health Services Research / methods
  • Health Services Research / standards
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*