Background: Low back pain is a common and costly health complaint for which there are several moderately effective treatments. In some fields there is evidence that funder and financial conflicts are associated with trial outcomes. It is not clear whether effect sizes in back pain trials relate to journal impact factor, reporting conflicts of interest, or reporting funding.
Methods: We performed a systematic review of English-language papers reporting randomised controlled trials of treatments for non-specific low back pain, published between 2006-2012. We modelled the relationship using 5-year journal impact factor, and categories of reported of conflicts of interest, and categories of reported funding (reported none and reported some, compared to not reporting these) using meta-regression, adjusting for sample size, and publication year. We also considered whether impact factor could be predicted by the direction of outcome, or trial sample size.
Results: We could abstract data to calculate effect size in 99 of 146 trials that met our inclusion criteria. Effect size is not associated with impact factor, reporting of funding source, or reporting of conflicts of interest. However, explicitly reporting 'no trial funding' is strongly associated with larger absolute values of effect size (adjusted β=1.02 (95 % CI 0.44 to 1.59), P=0.001). Impact factor increases by 0.008 (0.004 to 0.012) per unit increase in trial sample size (P<0.001), but does not differ by reported direction of the LBP trial outcome (P=0.270).
Conclusions: The absence of associations between effect size and impact factor, reporting sources of funding, and conflicts of interest reflects positively on research and publisher conduct in the field. Strong evidence of a large association between absolute magnitude of effect size and explicit reporting of 'no funding' suggests authors of unfunded trials are likely to report larger effect sizes, notwithstanding direction. This could relate in part to quality, resources, and/or how pragmatic a trial is.