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May 2012

Publication bias: big problem for children

Peter Gill
Last edited 6th May 2012

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics reported that only 29% of clinical studies in children have been published. This finding reinforces previous studies that there is significant publication bias in paediatric studies. These findings are a cause for serious concern.

What is publication bias? Essentially, it is the selected publication of studies based on the results, such as only publishing studies that demonstrate a drug works while not publishing studies that demonstrate harms.

Publication bias is a serious problem in healthcare and can have a large influence on treatment decisions by only providing limited information. Researchers have demonstrated substantial publication bias in certain areas such as the antidepressant medication reboxetine.

Several initiatives have been spearheaded to help reduce publication bias. The creation of open-access journals have shifted the focus from the importance of the results (as judged by a journal editorial committee) to the methodological rigour by which the study was completed.

But more importantly has been the creation of online trial registries, such as ClinicalTrials.gov launched in 2000. These registries serve as central databases of all the current and on-going clinical studies. Registration is optional, however in 2005 the ICMJE made registration of clinical trials as a pre-requisite of publication. Although this does not represent all journals, it sent a strong message of the importance of registration.

However despite the creation of trial registries, less than half of US based National Institute of Health (i.e. government) funded trials in children were registered on ClinicalTrials.gov. Another important finding was the lack of information included on the registries. One-third of all clinical studies terminated early did not provide any information about why they were stopped. The situation was similar for suspended studies with one quarter not providing information.

Were these studies stopped because of harms? Were the investigators no longer able to recruit children to enroll? Whatever the reason the studies were stopped, this information must be made public.

Registration of all clinical studies involving children must be made mandatory. This is the only way to minimise publication bias and increase the reporting of research. This would create massive industry uproar, but is it ethical to enroll children in a clinical study without having it publicly registered? At a minimum any trial that receives government funded must be registered.

However registration of studies is only one element of the formula. What about the dissemination of the results? Less than 10% of completed studies in children had results posted and publicly available. With the low publication rates of registered studies, and the even lower rate of posting results, how much information is still missing?

Indeed progress has been made to increase the quality and transparency of clinical studies in children but more is needed. We cannot assume that because trial registries exist that they are being used. Complacency must be replaced with compliance. It seems that more often than not, the little ones have the biggest problems.

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