Background: Meta-analysis is used to combine the results of several related studies. Two different models are generally applied: the fixed-effect (FE) and random-effects (RE) models. Although the two approaches estimate different parameters (that is, the true effect versus the expected value of the distribution of true effects) in practice, the graphical presentation of results is the same for both models. This means that in forest plots of RE meta-analyses, no estimate of the between-study variation is usually given graphically, even though it provides important information about the heterogeneity between the study effect sizes.
Findings: In addition to the point estimate of the between-study variation, a prediction interval (PI) can be used to determine the degree of heterogeneity, as it provides a region in which about 95% of the true study effects are expected to be found. To distinguish between the confidence interval (CI) for the average effect and the PI, it may also be helpful to include the latter interval in forest plots. We propose a new graphical presentation of the PI; in our method, the summary statistics in forest plots of RE meta-analyses include an additional row, '95% prediction interval', and the PI itself is presented in the form of a rectangle below the usual diamond illustrating the estimated average effect and its CI. We then compare this new graphical presentation of PIs with previous proposals by other authors. The way the PI is presented in forest plots is crucial. In previous proposals, the distinction between the CI and the PI has not been made clear, as both intervals have been illustrated either by a diamond or by extra lines added to the diamond, which may result in misinterpretation.
Conclusions: To distinguish graphically between the results of an FE and those of an RE meta-analysis, it is helpful to extend forest plots of the latter approach by including the PI. Clear presentation of the PI is necessary to avoid confusion with the CI of the average effect estimate.