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Hidden analyses: a review of reporting practice and recommendations for more transparent reporting of initial data analyses

Abstract: Background In the data pipeline from the data collection process to the planned statistical analyses, initial data analysis (IDA) typically takes place between the end of the data collection and do not touch the research questions. A systematic process for IDA and clear reporting of the findings would help to understand the potential shortcomings of a dataset, such as missing values, or subgroups with small sample sizes, or shortcomings in the collection process, and to evaluate the impact of these shortcomings on the research results. A clear reporting of findings is also relevant when making datasets available to other researchers. Initial data analyses can provide valuable insights into the suitability of a data set for a future research study. Our aim was to describe the practice of reporting of initial data analyses in observational studies in five highly ranked medical journals with focus on data cleaning, screening, and reporting of findings which led to a potential change in the analysis plan. Methods This review was carried out using systematic search strategies with eligibility criteria for articles to be reviewed. A total of 25 papers about observational studies were selected from five medical journals published in 2018. Each paper was reviewed by two reviewers and IDA statements were further discussed by all authors. The consensus was reported. Results IDA statements were reported in the methods, results, discussion, and supplement of papers. Ten out of 25 papers (40%) included a statement about data cleaning. Data screening statements were included in all articles, and 18 (72%) indicated the methods used to describe them. Item missingness was reported in 11 papers (44%), unit missingness in 15 papers (60%). Eleven papers (44%) mentioned some changes in the analysis plan. Reported changes referred to missing data treatment, unexpected values, population heterogeneity and aspects related to variable distributions or data properties. Conclusion Reporting of initial data analyses were sparse, and statements on IDA were located throughout the research articles. There is a lack of systematic reporting of IDA. We conclude the article with recommendations on how to overcome shortcomings in the practice of IDA reporting in observational studies.
Keywords: Initial data analysis / Reporting / Observational studies / STRATOS initiative
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