Nonpublication Rates and Characteristics of Registered Randomized Clinical Trials in Digital Health: Cross-Sectional Analysis

J Med Internet Res. 2018 Dec 18;20(12):e11924. doi: 10.2196/11924.


Background: Clinical trials are key to advancing evidence-based medical research. The medical research literature has identified the impact of publication bias in clinical trials. Selective publication for positive outcomes or nonpublication of negative results could misdirect subsequent research and result in literature reviews leaning toward positive outcomes. Digital health trials face specific challenges, including a high attrition rate, usability issues, and insufficient formative research. These challenges may contribute to nonpublication of the trial results. To our knowledge, no study has thus far reported the nonpublication rates of digital health trials.

Objective: The primary research objective was to evaluate the nonpublication rate of digital health randomized clinical trials registered in Our secondary research objective was to determine whether industry funding contributes to nonpublication of digital health trials.

Methods: To identify digital health trials, a list of 47 search terms was developed through an iterative process and applied to the "Title," "Interventions," and "Outcome Measures" fields of registered trials with completion dates between April 1, 2010, and April 1, 2013. The search was based on the full dataset exported from the database, with 265,657 trials entries downloaded on February 10, 2018, to allow publication of studies within 5 years of trial completion. We identified publications related to the results of the trials through a comprehensive approach that included an automated and manual publication-identification process.

Results: In total, 6717 articles matched the a priori search terms, of which 803 trials matched our latest completion date criteria. After screening, 556 trials were included in this study. We found that 150 (27%) of all included trials remained unpublished 5 years after their completion date. In bivariate analyses, we observed statistically significant differences in trial characteristics between published and unpublished trials in terms of the intervention target condition, country, trial size, trial phases, recruitment, and prospective trial registration. In multivariate analyses, differences in trial characteristics between published and unpublished trials remained statistically significant for the intervention target condition, country, trial size, trial phases, and recruitment; the odds of publication for non-US-based trials were significant, and these trials were 3.3 (95% CI 1.845-5.964) times more likely to be published than US-based trials. We observed a trend of 1.5 times higher nonpublication rates for industry-funded trials. However, the trend was not statistically significant.

Conclusions: In the domain of digital health, 27% of registered clinical trials results are unpublished, which is lower than nonpublication rates in other fields. There are substantial differences in nonpublication rates between trials funded by industry and nonindustry sponsors. Further research is required to define the determinants and reasons for nonpublication and, more importantly, to articulate the impact and risk of publication bias in the field of digital health trials.

Keywords: clinical protocols; clinical trial; eHealth; mHealth; mobile health; publication bias; publications; randomized controlled trial; registries; telehealth; telemedicine.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Libraries, Digital / trends*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Publications / trends*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Telemedicine / instrumentation*