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An important problem, recognised more than quarter of a century ago
In an article published in the James Lind Library, Gordon Guyatt and Andy Oxman – pioneers in the development of methods to support evidence-based medicine – explain why those of us working in the field of healthcare owe a methodological debt to the social sciences.1 American social scientists – including one who introduced the term ‘meta-analysis’2 – pioneered assessments of the effects of educational and social interventions using systematic reviews. They made clear that reviews should be conceptualised as research projects, and so needed to use scientifically defensible methods.3
One of the most important methodological contributions made by the social scientists in the 1970s was to point out that, as systematic reviews were based on surveys of the relevant primary evidence, these surveys needed to identify the relevant studies as completely as possible. The consequence of failing to take account of evidence that had not been published in academic journal articles was made clear by Mary Lee Smith and her colleagues in articles published more than three decades ago.4 5 For example, they tabulated the results of 12 meta-analyses that had used data derived both from published journal articles and from studies that had not been formally published. In every one of the 10 meta-analyses in which the comparison could be made, the …