Publication Bias in Meta-Analyses from Psychology and Medicine: A Meta-Meta-Analysis Life SciencesMedicineMetascience (Methods and Archival Science)PsychologySSMART

Robbie van Aert Jelte Wicherts Marcel van Assen

Publication bias is a substantial problem for the credibility of research in general and of meta-analyses in particular, as it yields overestimated effects and may suggest the existence of non-existing effects. Although there is consensus that publication bias exists, how strongly it affects different scientific literatures is currently less well-known. We examined evidence of publication bias in a large-scale data set of primary studies that were included in 83 meta-analyses published in Psychological Bulletin (representing meta-analyses from psychology) and 499 systematic reviews from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR; representing meta-analyses from medicine). Publication bias was assessed on all homogeneous subsets (3.8% of all subsets of meta-analyses published in Psychological Bulletin) of primary studies included in meta-analyses because publication bias methods do not have good statistical properties if the true effect size is heterogeneous. Publication bias tests did not reveal evidence for bias in the homogeneous subsets. Overestimation was minimal but statistically significant, providing evidence of publication bias that appeared to be similar in both fields. However, a Monte-Carlo simulation study revealed that the creation of homogeneous subsets resulted in challenging conditions for publication bias methods since the number of effect sizes in a subset was rather small (median number of effect sizes equaled 6). Our findings are in line with, in its most extreme case, publication bias ranging from no bias until only 5% statistically nonsignificant effect sizes being published. These and other findings, in combination with the small percentages of statistically significant primary effect sizes (28.9% and 18.9% for subsets published in Psychological Bulletin and CDSR), led to the conclusion that evidence for publication bias in the studied homogeneous subsets is weak but suggestive of mild publication bias in both psychology and medicine.

Publications associated with this project:

  • Aert, Robbie C. M. van, Jelte M. Wicherts, and Marcel A. L. M. van Assen. “Publication Bias Examined in Meta-Analyses from Psychology and Medicine: A Meta-Meta-Analysis.” PLOS ONE 14, no. 4 (April 12, 2019): e0215052. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0215052.