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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Mathematics - Non-Clinical Medicine - Public Health and Epidemiology - Science Policy

Statistical Multiplicity in Systematic Reviews of Anaesthesia Interventions: A Quantification and Comparison between Cochrane and Non-Cochrane Reviews
Published: Friday, December 02, 2011
Author: Georgina Imberger et al.

by Georgina Imberger, Alexandra Damgaard Vejlby, Sara Bohnstedt Hansen, Ann M. Møller, Jørn Wetterslev


Systematic reviews with meta-analyses often contain many statistical tests. This multiplicity may increase the risk of type I error. Few attempts have been made to address the problem of statistical multiplicity in systematic reviews. Before the implications are properly considered, the size of the issue deserves clarification. Because of the emphasis on bias evaluation and because of the editorial processes involved, Cochrane reviews may contain more multiplicity than their non-Cochrane counterparts. This study measured the quantity of statistical multiplicity present in a population of systematic reviews and aimed to assess whether this quantity is different in Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews.

Methods/Principal Findings

We selected all the systematic reviews published by the Cochrane Anaesthesia Review Group containing a meta-analysis and matched them with comparable non-Cochrane reviews. We counted the number of statistical tests done in each systematic review. The median number of tests overall was 10 (interquartile range (IQR) 6 to 18). The median was 12 in Cochrane and 8 in non-Cochrane reviews (difference in medians 4 (95% confidence interval (CI) 2.0–19.0). The proportion that used an assessment of risk of bias as a reason for doing extra analyses was 42% in Cochrane and 28% in non-Cochrane reviews (difference in proportions 14% (95% CI -8 to 36). The issue of multiplicity was addressed in 6% of all the reviews.


Statistical multiplicity in systematic reviews requires attention. We found more multiplicity in Cochrane reviews than in non-Cochrane reviews. Many of the reasons for the increase in multiplicity may well represent improved methodological approaches and greater transparency, but multiplicity may also cause an increased risk of spurious conclusions. Few systematic reviews, whether Cochrane or non-Cochrane, address the issue of multiplicity.