Background: Systematic reviews (SRs) can help decision makers interpret the deluge of published biomedical literature. However, a SR may be of limited use if the methods used to conduct the SR are flawed, and reporting of the SR is incomplete. To our knowledge, since 2004 there has been no cross-sectional study of the prevalence, focus, and completeness of reporting of SRs across different specialties. Therefore, the aim of our study was to investigate the epidemiological and reporting characteristics of a more recent cross-section of SRs.
Methods and findings: We searched MEDLINE to identify potentially eligible SRs indexed during the month of February 2014. Citations were screened using prespecified eligibility criteria. Epidemiological and reporting characteristics of a random sample of 300 SRs were extracted by one reviewer, with a 10% sample extracted in duplicate. We compared characteristics of Cochrane versus non-Cochrane reviews, and the 2014 sample of SRs versus a 2004 sample of SRs. We identified 682 SRs, suggesting that more than 8,000 SRs are being indexed in MEDLINE annually, corresponding to a 3-fold increase over the last decade. The majority of SRs addressed a therapeutic question and were conducted by authors based in China, the UK, or the US; they included a median of 15 studies involving 2,072 participants. Meta-analysis was performed in 63% of SRs, mostly using standard pairwise methods. Study risk of bias/quality assessment was performed in 70% of SRs but was rarely incorporated into the analysis (16%). Few SRs (7%) searched sources of unpublished data, and the risk of publication bias was considered in less than half of SRs. Reporting quality was highly variable; at least a third of SRs did not report use of a SR protocol, eligibility criteria relating to publication status, years of coverage of the search, a full Boolean search logic for at least one database, methods for data extraction, methods for study risk of bias assessment, a primary outcome, an abstract conclusion that incorporated study limitations, or the funding source of the SR. Cochrane SRs, which accounted for 15% of the sample, had more complete reporting than all other types of SRs. Reporting has generally improved since 2004, but remains suboptimal for many characteristics.
Conclusions: An increasing number of SRs are being published, and many are poorly conducted and reported. Strategies are needed to help reduce this avoidable waste in research.