OBJECTIVE: To study the inter-observer variation related to extraction of continuous and numerical rating scale data from trial reports for use in meta-analyses. DESIGN: Observer agreement study. DATA SOURCES: A random sample of 10 Cochrane reviews that presented a result as a standardised mean difference (SMD), the protocols for the reviews and the trial reports (n=45) were retrieved. DATA EXTRACTION: Five experienced methodologists and five PhD students independently extracted data from the trial reports for calculation of the first SMD result in each review. The observers did not have access to the reviews but to the protocols, where the relevant outcome was highlighted. The agreement was analysed at both trial and meta-analysis level, pairing the observers in all possible ways (45 pairs, yielding 2025 pairs of trials and 450 pairs of meta-analyses). Agreement was defined as SMDs that differed less than 0.1 in their point estimates or confidence intervals. RESULTS: The agreement was 53% at trial level and 31% at meta-analysis level. Including all pairs, the median disagreement was SMD=0.22 (interquartile range 0.07-0.61). The experts agreed somewhat more than the PhD students at trial level (61% v 46%), but not at meta-analysis level. Important reasons for disagreement were differences in selection of time points, scales, control groups, and type of calculations; whether to include a trial in the meta-analysis; and data extraction errors made by the observers. In 14 out of the 100 SMDs calculated at the meta-analysis level, individual observers reached different conclusions than the originally published review. CONCLUSIONS: Disagreements were common and often larger than the effect of commonly used treatments. Meta-analyses using SMDs are prone to observer variation and should be interpreted with caution. The reliability of meta-analyses might be improved by having more detailed review protocols, more than one observer, and statistical expertise.
Bmj. British Medical Journal (international Ed.), 2009, Vol 339