Toward Rigorous Data Harmonization in Cancer Epidemiology Research: One Approach

Am J Epidemiol. 2015 Dec 15;182(12):1033-8. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv133. Epub 2015 Nov 20.


Cancer epidemiologists have a long history of combining data sets in pooled analyses, often harmonizing heterogeneous data from multiple studies into 1 large data set. Although there are useful websites on data harmonization with recommendations and support, there is little research on best practices in data harmonization; each project conducts harmonization according to its own internal standards. The field would be greatly served by charting the process of data harmonization to enhance the quality of the harmonized data. Here, we describe the data harmonization process utilized at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle, Washington) by the coordinating centers of several research projects. We describe a 6-step harmonization process, including: 1) identification of questions the harmonized data set is required to answer; 2) identification of high-level data concepts to answer those questions; 3) assessment of data availability for data concepts; 4) development of common data elements for each data concept; 5) mapping and transformation of individual data points to common data elements; and 6) quality-control procedures. Our aim here is not to claim a "correct" way of doing data harmonization but to encourage others to describe their processes in order that we can begin to create rigorous approaches. We also propose a research agenda around this issue.

Keywords: cancer epidemiology; data harmonization; data pooling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Collection / methods*
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Morbidity / trends
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Risk Factors