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publication bias

Those unknown unknowns: the importance of publication bias

1 Aug, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

Can you believe what you read in a medical journal? Probably not, as many if not most research findings turn out to be false. Poor research design and underpowered studies are part of the problem but looming large in the background is the spectre of publication bias.

No one doubts that negative studies should be published, yet it remains the case that they struggle to get into journals. By negative studies I mean studies that don’t show a statistically or clinically significant effect, or where a new treatment is more effective than standard treatment or placebo but has intolerable or dangerous adverse effects. Much of the blame has been heaped upon those unscrupulous drug companies callously suppressing unfavourable data. But before we all climb up on our collective high horse you should read this month’s Editor’s Choice (free to access) in Evidence–Based Mental Health.

In his personal account of his struggle to publish negative data on the drug lamotrigine, Nassir Ghaemi points the finger at not just the pharma industry, but at the FDA, journal editors and the peer review process itself. A Boston psychiatrist, he speaks as an insider having sat on an advisory board for GlaxoSmithKline as well as the editorial board of the journal Bipolar Disorders (he also writes an entertaining blog, Mood Swings). The contemptuous tone of the rejection letters will be familiar to anyone who’s submitted a paper, as will the contradictory reasons for refusal.

We now have clinical trials registration – requiring that all results end up somewhere in the public domain – which is clearly a good thing. There are also journals such as BMC Research Notes and the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine that are specifically aiming to publish negative studies. However the fact that a paper attempting to address publication bias should itself fall victim to that bias indicates that this is a problem that won’t go away.

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