Niemeyer, H., Musch, J., & Pietrowsky, R. (2013). Publication bias in meta-analyses of the efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions for depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 58-74.
Meta-analyses are important ways of summarizing effects of medical and psychological interventions by aggregating effect sizes across a large number of studies. (Don’t stop reading, I promise this won’t get too statistical). The aggregated effect size from a meta analysis is more reliable than the findings of any individual study. That is why practice guidelines almost exclusively rely on meta analyses when making practice recommendations (see for example the Resources tab on this web site). However meta analyses are only as good as the data (i.e., studies) that go into them (hence, the old adage: “garbage in, garbage out”). For example, if the studies included in a meta analysis are a biased representation of all studies, then the meta analysis results will be unreliable leading to misleading practice guidelines. One problem that leads to unreliable meta analyses is called publication bias. Publication bias often refers to the tendency of peer reviewed journals not to publish studies with non-significant results (e.g., a study showing a treatment is no better than a control condition). Publication bias may also refer to active suppression of data by researchers or industry. Suppression of research results may occur because an intervention’s effects were not supported by the data, or the intervention was harmful to some study participants. In medical research, publication bias can have dire public health consequences (see this TED Talk). There is lots of evidence that publication bias has lead to a significant over-estimation of the effects of antidepressant medications (see Turner et al (2008) New England Journal of Medicine). Does publication bias exist in psychotherapy research, and if so does this mean that psychotherapy is not as effective as we think? A recent study by Niemeyer and colleagues (2013) addressed this question with the most up to date research and statistical techniques. They collected 31 data sets each of which included 6 or more studies of psychotherapeutic interventions (including published and unpublished studies) for depression. The majority of interventions tested were cognitive behavioral therapy, but interpersonal psychotherapy, and brief psychodynamic therapy were also included. The authors applied sophisticated statistical techniques to assess if publication bias existed. (Briefly, there are ways of assessing if the distribution of effect sizes across data sets fall in a predictable pattern called a “funnel plot” – specific significant deviations from this pattern indicate positive or negative publication bias). Niemeyer and colleagues found minimal evidence of publication bias in published research of psychotherapy for depression. This minimal bias had almost no impact on the size of the effect of psychotherapy for depression.
This is a very important result indicating that despite a minor tendency toward a selective publication of positive results, the efficacy of all reviewed psychotherapy interventions for depression remained substantial, even after correcting for the publication bias. Niemeyer and colleagues’ findings demonstrate that publication bias alone cannot explain the considerable efficacy of psychotherapy for depression. Psychotherapeutic interventions can still be considered efficacious and recommended for the treatment of depression.
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