Studies initially reported as conference abstracts that have positive results are subsequently published as full-length journal articles more often than studies with negative results.

Less than half of all studies, and about 60% of randomized or controlled clinical trials, initially presented as summaries or abstracts at professional meetings are subsequently published as peer-reviewed journal articles. An important factor appearing to influence whether a study described in an abstract is published in full is the presence of 'positive' results in the abstract. Thus, the efforts of persons trying to collect all of the evidence in a field may be stymied, first by the failure of investigators to take abstract study results to full publication, and second, by the tendency to take to full publication only those studies reporting 'significant' results. The consequence of this is that systematic reviews will tend to over-estimate treatment effects.

Authors' conclusions: 

Only 63% of results from abstracts describing randomized or controlled clinical trials are published in full. 'Positive' results were more frequently published than not 'positive' results.

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Background: 

Abstracts of presentations at scientific meetings are usually available only in conference proceedings. If subsequent full publication of abstract results is based on the magnitude or direction of study results, publication bias may result. Publication bias, in turn, creates problems for those conducting systematic reviews or relying on the published literature for evidence.

Objectives: 

To determine the rate at which abstract results are subsequently published in full, and the time between meeting presentation and full publication.

Search strategy: 

We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, The Cochrane Library, Science Citation Index, reference lists, and author files. Date of most recent search: June 2003.

Selection criteria: 

We included all reports that examined the subsequent full publication rate of biomedical results initially presented as abstracts or in summary form. Follow-up of abstracts had to be at least two years.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two reviewers extracted data. We calculated the weighted mean full publication rate and time to full publication. Dichotomous variables were analyzed using relative risk and random effects models. We assessed time to publication using Kaplan-Meier survival analyses.

Main results: 

Combining data from 79 reports (29,729 abstracts) resulted in a weighted mean full publication rate of 44.5% (95% confidence interval (CI) 43.9 to 45.1). Survival analyses resulted in an estimated publication rate at 9 years of 52.6% for all studies, 63.1% for randomized or controlled clinical trials, and 49.3% for other types of study designs.

'Positive' results defined as any 'significant' result showed an association with full publication (RR = 1.30; CI 1.14 to 1.47), as did 'positive' results defined as a result favoring the experimental treatment (RR =1.17; CI 1.02 to 1.35), and 'positive' results emanating from randomized or controlled clinical trials (RR = 1.18, CI 1.07 to 1.30).

Other factors associated with full publication include oral presentation (RR = 1.28; CI 1.09 to 1.49); acceptance for meeting presentation (RR = 1.78; CI 1.50 to 2.12); randomized trial study design (RR = 1.24; CI 1.14 to 1.36); and basic research (RR = 0.79; CI 0.70 to 0.89). Higher quality of abstracts describing randomized or controlled clinical trials was also associated with full publication (RR = 1.30, CI 1.00 to 1.71).

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