Previous research shows that many authors of Cochrane overviews were also involved in some of the included systematic reviews (SRs). This type of dual (co-)authorship (DCA) may be a conflict of interest and a potential source of bias. Our objectives were to (1) additionally investigate DCA in non-Cochrane overviews; (2) investigate whether there is an association between DCA and quality assessments of SRs in Cochrane and non-Cochrane overviews.
We selected a sample of Cochrane (n = 20) and non-Cochrane (n = 78) overviews for analysis. We extracted data on the number of reviews affected by DCA and whether quality assessment of included reviews was conducted independently. Differences in mean quality scores between SRs with and without DCA were calculated in each overview. These differences were standardized (using the standardized mean difference (SMD)) and meta-analyzed using a random effects model.
Forty out of 78 non-Cochrane overviews (51%) and 18 out of 20 Cochrane overviews (90%) had included at least one SR with DCA. For Cochrane overviews, a median of 5 [interquartile range (IQR) 2.5 to 7] SRs were affected by DCA (median of included reviews 10). For non-Cochrane overviews a median of 1 [IQR 0 to 2] of the included SRs were affected (median of included reviews 14). The meta-analysis showed a SMD of 0.58 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.27 to 0.90) indicating higher quality scores in reviews with overlapping authors. The test for subgroup differences shows no evidence of a difference between Cochrane (SMD 0.44; 95% CI 0.07 to 0.81) and non-Cochrane overviews (SMD 0.62; 95% CI 0.06 to 1.17).
Many authors of overviews also often have an authorship on one or more of the underlying reviews. Our analysis shows that, on average, authors of overviews give higher quality ratings to SRs in which they were involved themselves than to other SRs. Conflict of interest is one explanation, but there are several others such as reviewer expertise. Independent and blinded reassessments of the reviews would provide more robust evidence on potential bias arising from DCA.