How will we ever keep up with 75 Trials and 11 Systematic Reviews a Day?

6 10 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgAn interesting paper was published in PLOS Medicine [1]. As an information specialist and working part time for the Cochrane Collaboration* (see below), this topic is close to my heart.

The paper, published in PLOS Medicine is written by Hilda Bastian and two of my favorite EBM devotees ànd critics, Paul Glasziou and Iain Chalmers.

Their article gives an good overview of the rise in number of trials, systematic reviews (SR’s) of interventions and of medical papers in general. The paper (under the head: Policy Forum) raises some important issues, but the message is not as sharp and clear as usual.

Take the title for instance.

Seventy-Five Trials and Eleven Systematic Reviews a Day:
How Will We Ever Keep Up?

What do you consider its most important message?

  1. That doctors suffer from an information overload that is only going to get worse, as I did and probably also in part @kevinclauson who tweeted about it to medical librarians
  2. that the solution to this information overload consists of Cochrane systematic reviews (because they aggregate the evidence from individual trials) as @doctorblogs twittered
  3. that it is just about “too many systematic reviews (SR’s) ?”, the title of the PLOS-press release (so the other way around),
  4. That it is about too much of everything and the not always good quality SR’s: @kevinclauson and @pfanderson discussed that they both use the same ” #Cochrane Disaster” (see Kevin’s Blog) in their  teaching.
  5. that Archie Cochrane’s* dream is unachievable and ought perhaps be replaced by something less Utopian (comment by Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ: 1, 3, 4, 5 together plus a new aspect: SR’s should not only  include randomized controlled trials (RCT’s)

The paper reads easily, but matters of importance are often only touched upon.  Even after reading it twice, I wondered: a lot is being said, but what is really their main point and what are their answers/suggestions?

But lets look at their arguments and pieces of evidence. (Black is from their paper, blue my remarks)

The landscape

I often start my presentations “searching for evidence” by showing the Figure to the right, which is from an older PLOS-article. It illustrates the information overload. Sometimes I also show another slide, with (5-10 year older data), saying that there are 55 trials a day, 1400 new records added per day to MEDLINE and 5000 biomedical articles a day. I also add that specialists have to read 17-22 articles a day to keep up to date with the literature. GP’s even have to read more, because they are generalists. So those 75 trials and the subsequent information overload is not really a shock to me.

Indeed the authors start with saying that “Keeping up with information in health care has never been easy.” The authors give an interesting overview of the driving forces for the increase in trials and the initiation of SR’s and critical appraisals to synthesize the evidence from all individual trials to overcome the information overload (SR’s and other forms of aggregate evidence decrease the number needed to read).

In box 1 they give an overview of the earliest systematic reviews. These SR’s often had a great impact on medical practice (see for instance an earlier discussion on the role of the Crash trial and of the first Cochrane review).
They also touch upon the institution of the Cochrane Collaboration.  The Cochrane collaboration is named after Archie Cochrane who “reproached the medical profession for not having managed to organise a “critical summary, by speciality or subspecialty, adapted periodically, of all relevant randomised controlled trials” He inspired the establishment of the international Oxford Database of Perinatal Trials and he encouraged the use of systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCT’s).

A timeline with some of the key events are shown in Figure 1.

Where are we now?

The second paragraph shows many, interesting, graphs (figs 2-4).

Annoyingly, PLOS only allows one sentence-legends. The details are in the (WORD) supplement without proper referral to the actual figure numbers. Grrrr..!  This is completely unnecessary in reviews/editorials/policy forums. And -as said- annoying, because you have to read a Word file to understand where the data actually come from.

Bastian et al. have used MEDLINE’s publication types (i.e. case reports [pt], reviews[pt], Controlled Clinical Trial[pt] ) and search filters (the Montori SR filter and the Haynes narrow therapy filter, which is built-in in PubMed’s Clinical Queries) to estimate the yearly rise in number of study types. The total number of Clinical trials in CENTRAL (the largest database of controlled clinical trials, abbreviated as CCTRS in the article) and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) are easy to retrieve, because the numbers are published quaterly (now monthly) by the Cochrane Library. Per definition, CDSR only contains SR’s and CENTRAL (as I prefer to call it) contains almost invariably controlled clinical trials.

In short, these are the conclusions from their three figures:

  • Fig 2: The number of published trials has raised sharply from 1950 till 2010
  • Fig 3: The number of systematic reviews and meta-analysis has raised tremendously as well
  • Fig 4: But systematic reviews and clinical trials are still far outnumbered by narrative reviews and case reports.

O.k. that’s clear & they raise a good point : an “astonishing growth has occurred in the number of reports of clinical trials since the middle of the 20th century, and in reports of systematic reviews since the 1980s—and a plateau in growth has not yet been reached.
Plus indirectly: the increase in systematic reviews  didn’t lead to a lower the number of trials and narrative reviews. Thus the information overload is still increasing.
But instead of discussing these findings they go into an endless discussion on the actual data and the fact that we “still do not know exactly how many trials have been done”, to end the discussion by saying that “Even though these figures must be seen as more illustrative than precise…” And than you think. So what? Furthermore, I don’t really get their point of this part of their article.


Fig. 2: The number of published trials, 1950 to 2007.



With regard to Figure 2 they say for instance:

The differences between the numbers of trial records in MEDLINE and CCTR (CENTRAL) (see Figure 2) have multiple causes. Both CCTR and MEDLINE often contain more than one record from a single study, and there are lags in adding new records to both databases. The NLM filters are probably not as efficient at excluding non-trials as are the methods used to compile CCTR. Furthermore, MEDLINE has more language restrictions than CCTR. In brief, there is still no single repository reliably showing the true number of randomised trials. Similar difficulties apply to trying to estimate the number of systematic reviews and health technology assessments (HTAs).

Sorry, although some of these points may be true, Bastian et al. don’t go into the main reason for the difference between both graphs, that is the higher number of trial records in CCTR (CENTRAL) than in MEDLINE: the difference can be simply explained by the fact that CENTRAL contains records from MEDLINE as well as from many other electronic databases and from hand-searched materials (see this post).
With respect to other details:. I don’t know which NLM filter they refer to, but if they mean the narrow therapy filter: this filter is specifically meant to find randomized controlled trials, and is far more specific and less sensitive than the Cochrane methodological filters for retrieving controlled clinical trials. In addition, MEDLINE does not have more language restrictions per se: it just contains a (extensive) selection of  journals. (Plus people more easily use language limits in MEDLINE, but that is besides the point).

Elsewhere the authors say:

In Figures 2 and 3 we use a variety of data sources to estimate the numbers of trials and systematic reviews published from 1950 to the end of 2007 (see Text S1). The number of trials continues to rise: although the data from CCTR suggest some fluctuation in trial numbers in recent years, this may be misleading because the Cochrane Collaboration virtually halted additions to CCTR as it undertook a review and internal restructuring that lasted a couple of years.

As I recall it , the situation is like this: till 2005 the Cochrane Collaboration did the so called “retag project” , in which they searched for controlled clinical trials in MEDLINE and EMBASE (with a very broad methodological filter). All controlled trials articles were loaded in CENTRAL, and the NLM retagged the controlled clinical trials that weren’t tagged with the appropriate publication type in MEDLINE. The Cochrane stopped the laborious retag project in 2005, but still continues the (now) monthly electronic search updates performed by the various Cochrane groups (for their topics only). They still continue handsearching. So they didn’t (virtually?!) halted additions to CENTRAL, although it seems likely that stopping the retagging project caused the plateau. Again the author’s main points are dwarfed by not very accurate details.

Some interesting points in this paragraph:

  • We still do not know exactly how many trials have been done.
  • For a variety of reasons, a large proportion of trials have remained unpublished (negative publication bias!) (note: Cochrane Reviews try to lower this kind of bias by applying no language limits and including unpublished data, i.e. conference proceedings, too)
  • Many trials have been published in journals without being electronically indexed as trials, which makes them difficult to find. (note: this has been tremendously improved since the Consort-statement, which is an evidence-based, minimum set of recommendations for reporting RCTs, and by the Cochrane retag-project, discussed above)
  • Astonishing growth has occurred in the number of reports of clinical trials since the middle of the 20th century, and in reports of systematic reviews since the 1980s—and a plateau in growth has not yet been reached.
  • Trials are now registered in prospective trial registers at inception, theoretically enabling an overview of all published and unpublished trials (note: this will also facilitate to find out reasons for not publishing data, or alteration of primary outcomes)
  • Once the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors announced that their journals would no longer publish trials that had not been prospectively registered, far more ongoing trials were being registered per week (200 instead of 30). In 2007, the US Congress made detailed prospective trial registration legally mandatory.

The authors do not discuss that better reporting of trials and the retag project might have facilitated the indexing and retrieval of trials.

How Close Are We to Archie Cochrane’s Goal?

According to the authors there are various reasons why Archie Cochrane’s goal will not be achieved without some serious changes in course:

  • The increase in systematic reviews didn’t displace other less reliable forms of information (Figs 3 and 4)
  • Only a minority of trials have been assessed in systematic review
  • The workload involved in producing reviews is increasing
  • The bulk of systematic reviews are now many years out of date.

Where to Now?

In this paragraph the authors discuss what should be changed:

  • Prioritize trials
  • Wider adoption of the concept that trials will not be supported unless a SR has shown the trial to be necessary.
  • Prioritizing SR’s: reviews should address questions that are relevant to patients, clinicians and policymakers.
  • Chose between elaborate reviews that answer a part of the relevant questions or “leaner” reviews of most of what we want to know. Apparently the authors have already chosen for the latter: they prefer:
    • shorter and less elaborate reviews
    • faster production ànd update of SR’s
    • no unnecessary inclusion of other study types other than randomized trials. (unless it is about less common adverse effects)
  • More international collaboration and thereby a better use  of resources for SR’s and HTAs. As an example of a good initiative they mention “KEEP Up,” which will aim to harmonise updating standards and aggregate updating results, initiated and coordinated by the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) and involving key systematic reviewing and guidelines organisations such as the Cochrane Collaboration, Duodecim, the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Summary and comments

The main aim of this paper is to discuss  to which extent the medical profession has managed to make “critical summaries, by speciality or subspeciality, adapted periodically, of all relevant randomized controlled trials”, as proposed 30 years ago by Archie Cochrane.

Emphasis of the paper is mostly on the number of trials and systematic reviews, not on qualitative aspects. Furthermore there is too much emphasis on the methods determining the number of trials and reviews.

The main conclusion of the authors is that an astonishing growth has occurred in the number of reports of clinical trials as well as in the number of SR’s, but that these systematic pieces of evidence shrink into insignificance compared to the a-systematic narrative reviews or case reports published. That is an important, but not an unexpected conclusion.

Bastian et al don’t address whether systematic reviews have made the growing number of trials easier to access or digest. Neither do they go into developments that have facilitated the retrieval of clinical trials and aggregate evidence from databases like PubMed: the Cochrane retag-project, the Consort-statement, the existence of publication types and search filters (they use themselves to filter out trials and systematic reviews). They also skip other sources than systematic reviews, that make it easier to find the evidence: Databases with Evidence Based Guidelines, the TRIP database, Clinical Evidence.
As Clay Shirky said: “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.”

It is also good to note that case reports and narrative reviews serve other aims. For medical practitioners rare case reports can be very useful for their clinical practice and good narrative reviews can be valuable for getting an overview in the field or for keeping up-to-date. You just have to know when to look for what.

Bastian et al have several suggestions for improvement, but these suggestions are not always underpinned. For instance, they propose access to all systematic reviews and trials. Perfect. But how can this be attained? We could stimulate authors to publish their trials in open access papers. For Cochrane reviews this would be desirable but difficult, as we cannot demand from authors who work for months for free to write a SR to pay the publications themselves. The Cochrane Collab is an international organization that does not receive subsidies for this. So how could this be achieved?

In my opinion, we can expect the most important benefits from prioritizing of trials ànd SR’s, faster production ànd update of SR’s, more international collaboration and less duplication. It is a pity the authors do not mention other projects than “Keep up”.  As discussed in previous posts, the Cochrane Collaboration also recognizes the many issues raised in this paper, and aims to speed up the updates and to produce evidence on priority topics (see here and here). Evidence aid is an example of a successful effort.  But this is only the Cochrane Collaboration. There are many more non-Cochrane systematic reviews produced.

And then we arrive at the next issue: Not all systematic reviews are created equal. There are a lot of so called “systematic reviews”, that aren’t the conscientious, explicit and judicious created synthesis of evidence as they ought to be.

Therefore, I do not think that the proposal that each single trial should be preceded by a systematic review, is a very good idea.
In the Netherlands writing a SR is already required for NWO grants. In practice, people just approach me, as a searcher, the days before Christmas, with the idea to submit the grant proposal (including the SR) early in January. This evidently is a fast procedure, but doesn’t result in a high standard SR, upon which others can rely.

Another point is that this simple and fast production of SR’s will only lead to a larger increase in number of SR’s, an effect that the authors wanted to prevent.

Of course it is necessary to get a (reliable) picture of what has already be done and to prevent unnecessary duplication of trials and systematic reviews. It would the best solution if we would have a triplet (nano-publications)-like repository of trials and systematic reviews done.

Ideally, researchers and doctors should first check such a database for existing systematic reviews. Only if no recent SR is present they could continue writing a SR themselves. Perhaps it sometimes suffices to search for trials and write a short synthesis.

There is another point I do not agree with. I do not think that SR’s of interventions should only include RCT’s . We should include those study types that are relevant. If RCT’s furnish a clear proof, than RCT’s are all we need. But sometimes – or in some topics/specialties- RCT’s are not available. Inclusion of other study designs and rating them with GRADE (proposed by Guyatt) gives a better overall picture. (also see the post: #notsofunny: ridiculing RCT’s and EBM.

The authors strive for simplicity. However, the real world isn’t that simple. In this paper they have limited themselves to evidence of the effects of health care interventions. Finding and assessing prognostic, etiological and diagnostic studies is methodologically even more difficult. Still many clinicians have these kinds of questions. Therefore systematic reviews of other study designs (diagnostic accuracy or observational studies) are also of great importance.

In conclusion, whereas I do not agree with all points raised, this paper touches upon a lot of important issues and achieves what can be expected from a discussion paper:  a thorough shake-up and a lot of discussion.


  1. Bastian, H., Glasziou, P., & Chalmers, I. (2010). Seventy-Five Trials and Eleven Systematic Reviews a Day: How Will We Ever Keep Up? PLoS Medicine, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000326

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