Failure to report protocol violations in clinical trials: a threat to internal validity?

Trials. 2011 Sep 28:12:214. doi: 10.1186/1745-6215-12-214.


Background: Excessive protocol violations (PV), which can be defined as preventable mistakes in study conduct, may result in patient harm and introduce errors into a clinical trial's results leading to flawed trial conclusions.The purpose of this project was to gain a better understanding of reported PVs, to describe current practice with regards to the use of methods for the reduction of PVs and to investigate relationships between clinical trial characteristics and PVs.

Methods: We reviewed 80 clinical trials conducted across a broad range of medical specialties published in four major general medical journals (The Lancet, NEJM, JAMA, BMJ). Eligible papers were identified using a PubMed search. For each included trial, two authors independently abstracted information on trial characteristics, PV reporting and PV rates and interventions used to reduce PVs. PVs were categorised into one of five distinct types: enrollment, randomisation, study intervention, patient compliance and data collection errors. Associations between PVs and study characteristics were investigated using logistic regression.

Results: Eighty clinical trials (20 from each journal) were identified from 101 consecutive PubMed abstracts. The median number of participants was 701 (range: 20 to 162, 367) and the median number of participating sites was 15 (range: 1 to 701). Nineteen percent (15/80) of included trials were single centre trials. The median study duration was 24 months (range: 5.81 - 127 months) and 74% (59/80) of included trials were primarily academic funded.Thirty two percent (26/80) of included trials failed to provide explicit reporting of any type of PV and none (0/80) of the trials provided explicit reporting of all five types of PVs. Larger clinical trials (more patients, more sites, longer duration, more complex management structure) were more likely to have more complete reporting of PV's.Only 9% (7/80) of trials reported the use of a specific study method to prevent PVs. Use of a run-in phase was the only method reported.

Conclusions: PVs are under-reported. Although the CONSORT statement provides guidance on the reporting of PVs, reporting requirements are not explicit for all types of PVs. As a first step towards improved reporting by authors, we recommend the CONSORT statement highlight the importance of PVs by making reporting requirements more explicit.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Protocols / standards*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / standards*
  • Humans
  • Reproducibility of Results