Publication and related biases in health services research: a systematic review of empirical evidence

Abimbola A Ayorinde, Iestyn Williams, Russell Mannion, Fujian Song, Magdalena Skrybant, Richard Lilford, Yen-fu Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
200 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Publication and related biases (including publication bias, time-lag bias, outcome reporting bias and p-hacking) have been well documented in clinical research, but relatively little is known about their presence and extent in health services research (HSR). This paper aims to systematically review evidence concerning publication and related bias in quantitative HSR.

Methods: Databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, HMIC, CINAHL, Web of Science, Health Systems Evidence, Cochrane EPOC Review Group and several websites were searched to July 2018. Information was obtained from: (1) Methodological studies that set out to investigate publication and related biases in HSR; (2) Systematic reviews of HSR topics which examined such biases as part of the review process. Relevant information was extracted from included studies by one reviewer and checked by another. Studies were appraised according to commonly accepted scientific principles due to lack of suitable checklists. Data were synthesised narratively.

Results: After screening 6155 citations, four methodological studies investigating publication bias in HSR and 184 systematic reviews of HSR topics (including three comparing published with unpublished evidence) were examined. Evidence suggestive of publication bias was reported in some of the methodological studies, but evidence presented was very weak, limited in both quality and scope. Reliable data on outcome reporting bias and p-hacking were scant. HSR systematic reviews in which published literature was compared with unpublished evidence found significant differences in the estimated intervention effects or association in some but not all cases.

Conclusions: Methodological research on publication and related biases in HSR is sparse. Evidence from available literature suggests that such biases may exist in HSR but their scale and impact are difficult to estimate for various reasons discussed in this paper.

Systematic review registration: PROSPERO 2016 CRD42016052333.
Original languageEnglish
Article number137
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


  • Publication bias
  • dissemination bias
  • funnel plots
  • grey literature
  • health services research
  • outcome reporting bias
  • publication, research registration
  • research methodology
  • research publication
  • systematic review


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