Many diagnostic accuracy studies are never reported in full in a peer‐reviewed journal. Searching for unpublished studies may avoid bias due to selective publication, enrich the power of systematic reviews, and thereby help to reduce research waste. We assessed searching practices among recent systematic reviews of diagnostic accuracy.
We extracted data from 100 non‐Cochrane systematic reviews of diagnostic accuracy indexed in MEDLINE and published between October 2017 and January 2018 and from all 100 Cochrane systematic reviews of diagnostic accuracy published by December 2018, irrespective of whether meta‐analysis had been performed.
Non‐Cochrane and Cochrane reviews searched a median of 4 (IQR 3‐5) and 6 (IQR 5‐9) databases, respectively; most often MEDLINE/PubMed (n = 100 and n = 100) and EMBASE (n = 81 and n = 100). Additional efforts to identify studies beyond searching bibliographic databases were performed in 76 and 98 reviews, most often through screening reference lists (n = 71 and n = 96), review/guideline articles (n = 18 and n = 52), or citing articles (n = 3 and n = 42). Specific sources of unpublished studies were searched in 22 and 68 reviews, for example, conference proceedings (n = 4 and n = 18), databases only containing conference abstracts (n = 2 and n = 33), or trial registries (n = 12 and n = 39). At least one unpublished study was included in 17 and 23 reviews. Overall, 39 of 2082 studies (1.9%) included in non‐Cochrane reviews were unpublished, and 64 of 2780 studies (2.3%) in Cochrane reviews, most often conference abstracts (97/103).
Searching practices vary considerably across systematic reviews of diagnostic accuracy. Unpublished studies are a minimal fraction of the evidence included in recent reviews.