Background: Some randomised controlled trials (RCTs) done in German-speaking Europe are published in international English-language journals and others in national German-language journals. We assessed whether authors are more likely to report trials with statistically significant results in English than in German.
Methods: We studied pairs of RCT reports, matched for first author and time of publication, with one report published in German and the other in English. Pairs were identified from reports round in a manual search of five leading German-language journals and from reports published by the same authors in English found on Medline. Quality of methods and reporting were assessed with two different scales by two investigators who were unaware of authors' identities, affiliations, and other characteristics of trial reports. Main study endpoints were selected by two investigators who were unaware of trial results. Our main outcome was the number of pairs of studies in which the levels of significance (shown by p values) were discordant.
Findings: 62 eligible pairs of reports were identified but 19 (31%) were excluded because they were duplicate publications. A further three pairs (5%) were excluded because no p values were given. The remaining 40 pairs were analysed. Design characteristics and quality features were similar for reports in both languages. Only 35% of German-language articles, compared with 62% of English-language articles, reported significant (p < 0.05) differences in the main endpoint between study and control groups (p = 0.002 by McNemar's test). Logistic regression showed that the only characteristic that predicted publication in an English-language journal was a significant result. The odds ratio for publication of trials with significant results in English was 3.75 (95% CI 1.25-11.3).
Interpretation: Authors were more likely to publish RCTs in an English-language journal if the results were statistically significant. English language bias may, therefore, be introduced in reviews and meta-analyses if they include only trials reported in English. The effort of the Cochrane Collaboration to identify as many controlled trials as possible, through the manual search of many medical journals published in different languages will help to reduce such bias.