The contribution of databases to the results of systematic reviews: a cross-sectional study

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  • Background: One of the best sources for high quality information about healthcare interventions is a systematic review. A well-conducted systematic review includes a comprehensive literature search. There is limited empiric evidence to guide the extent of searching, in particular the number of electronic databases that should be searched. We conducted a cross-sectional quantitative analysis to examine the potential impact of selective database searching on results of meta-analyses. Methods: Our sample included systematic reviews (SRs) with at least one meta-analysis from three Cochrane Review Groups: Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI), Infectious Diseases (ID), Developmental Psychosocial and Learning Problems (DPLP) (n = 129). Outcomes included: 1) proportion of relevant studies indexed in each of 10 databases; and 2) changes in results and statistical significance of primary meta-analysis for studies identified in Medline only and in Medline plus each of the other databases. Results: Due to variation across topics, we present results by group (ARI n = 57, ID n = 38, DPLP n = 34). For ARI, identification of relevant studies was highest for Medline (85 %) and Embase (80 %). Restricting meta-analyses to trials that appeared in Medline + Embase yielded fewest changes in statistical significance: 53/55 meta-analyses showed no change. Point estimates changed in 12 cases; in 7 the change was less than 20 %. For ID, yield was highest for Medline (92 %), Embase (81 %), and BIOSIS (67 %). Restricting meta-analyses to trials that appeared in Medline + BIOSIS yielded fewest changes with 1 meta-analysis changing in statistical significance. Point estimates changed in 8 of 31 meta-analyses; change less than 20 % in all cases. For DPLP, identification of relevant studies was highest for Medline (75 %) and Embase (62 %). Restricting meta-analyses to trials that appeared in Medline + PsycINFO resulted in only one change in significance. Point estimates changed for 13 of 33 meta-analyses; less than 20 % in 9 cases. Conclusions: Majority of relevant studies can be found within a limited number of databases. Results of meta-analyses based on the majority of studies did not differ in most cases. There were very few cases of changes in statistical significance. Effect estimates changed in a minority of meta-analyses but in most the change was small. Results did not change in a systematic manner (i.e., regularly over- or underestimating treatment effects), suggesting that selective searching may not introduce bias in terms of effect estimates.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International