Reporting guidelines such as PRISMA for systematic reviews and meta-analyses and CONSORT for randomized controlled trials are often touted as a way to improve the thoroughness and transparency of reporting in academic research. However, while intended as a guide for improving the reporting of research, a new systematic review of a random sample of different publication types found that in many cases, these guidelines were cited incorrectly as a way of guiding the design and conduct of the research itself, of assessing the quality of published research, or for an unclear purpose.
In the review published earlier this month, Caulley and colleagues worked with an experienced librarian to devise a systematic search strategy that would pick up on any publication citing one of four major reporting guidelines documents from inception to 2018: ARRIVE (used in in vivo animal research), CHEERS (used in health economic evaluations), CONSORT (used in randomized controlled trials) and PRISMA (used in systematic reviews and meta-analyses). Then, a random sample of 50 of each publication type were reviewed independently by two authors for their citation of the reporting guideline.
Overall, only 39% of the 200 reviewed items correctly stated that the guidelines were followed in the reporting of the study, whereas an additional 41% incorrectly cited the guidelines, usually by stating that they informed the design or conduct of the research. Finally, in 20% of the reviewed items, the intended purpose of the cited reporting guidelines was unclear.
|Examples of appropriate, inappropriate, and unclear use of reporting guidelines provided by Caulley et al. Click to enlarge.
Between publication types, RCTs the most likely to appropriately cite the use of CONSORT guidelines (64%) versus 42% of economic evaluations correctly citing CHEERS, 28% of systematic reviews and meta-analyses appropriately discussing the use of PRISMA, and just 22% of in vivo animal research studies correctly citing ARRIVE.
|Appropriate, Inappropriate, and Unclear Use of Reporting Guidelines, by Publication Type. Click to enlarge.
In addition, the appropriate use of the reporting guidelines did not appear to increase as time elapsed since the publication of those guidelines.
The authors suggest that improved education about the appropriate use of these guidelines – such as the web-based interventions and tools that are available to those looking to use CONSORT - may improve their correct application in future publications.
Caulley, L., Catalá-López, F., Whelan, J., Khoury, M., Ferraro, J., Cheng, W., ... & Moher, D. Reporting guidelines of health research studies are frequently used in appropriately. J Clin Epidemiol, 2020; 122: 87-94.
Manuscript available from the publisher's website here.