Appropriate reporting is central to the application of findings from research to clinical practice. The Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) recommendations consist of a checklist of 22 items that provide guidance on the reporting of cohort, case–control and cross-sectional studies, in order to facilitate critical appraisal and interpretation of results. STROBE was published in October 2007 in several journals including The Lancet, BMJ, Annals of Internal Medicine and PLoS Medicine. Within the framework of the revision of the STROBE recommendations, the authors examined the context and circumstances in which the STROBE statement was used in the past.
The authors searched the Web of Science database in August 2010 for articles which cited STROBE and examined a random sample of 100 articles using a standardised, piloted data extraction form. The use of STROBE in observational studies and systematic reviews (including meta-analyses) was classified as appropriate or inappropriate. The use of STROBE to guide the reporting of observational studies was considered appropriate. Inappropriate uses included the use of STROBE as a tool to assess the methodological quality of studies or as a guideline on how to design and conduct studies.
The authors identified 640 articles that cited STROBE. In the random sample of 100 articles, about half were observational studies (32%) or systematic reviews (19%). Comments, editorials and letters accounted for 15%, methodological articles for 8%, and recommendations and narrative reviews for 26% of articles. Of the 32 observational studies, 26 (81%) made appropriate use of STROBE, and three uses (10%) were considered inappropriate. Among 19 systematic reviews, 10 (53%) used STROBE inappropriately as a tool to assess study quality.
The STROBE reporting recommendations are frequently used inappropriately in systematic reviews and meta-analyses as an instrument to assess the methodological quality of observational studies.
Appropriate reporting is central for the proper application of findings from clinical research into clinical practice.
The Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) recommendations aim to provide guidance to authors on how to improve the reporting of observational studies to facilitate critical appraisal and interpretation of results.
We examined the reasons for citing STROBE and found that most observational studies used STROBE as a reporting guideline, while about half of systematic reviews used STROBE as a tool to assess the methodological quality of the studies.
Our study provides further evidence that authors of systematic reviews inappropriately use reporting guidelines to assess methodological study quality. Given the identified common misuse of STROBE, we discuss possible reasons and potential pitfalls of such misuse.
Strengths and limitations of this study
We conducted a systematic review of the literature to address a relevant and insufficiently discussed issue concerning misuses of reporting guidelines. One of the main concerns of such misuse is the potential introduction of bias into systematic reviews and meta-analysis.
A limitation of our findings is the fact that we included only articles which cited STROBE. This may have resulted in a selection bias, since some researchers may use STROBE in their study and mention it in their manuscript but do not formally cite it.