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Int J Epidemiol. 2008 Oct;37(5):1148-57. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyn065. Epub 2008 Apr 18.

Sensitivity of between-study heterogeneity in meta-analysis: proposed metrics and empirical evaluation.

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Clinical Trials and Evidence-Based Medicine Unit and Clinical and Molecular Epidemiology Unit, Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology, University of Ioannina School of Medicine, Ioannina 45110, Greece.



Several approaches are available for evaluating heterogeneity in meta-analysis. Sensitivity analyses are often used, but these are often implemented in various non-standardized ways.


We developed and implemented sequential and combinatorial algorithms that evaluate the change in between-study heterogeneity as one or more studies are excluded from the calculations. The algorithms exclude studies aiming to achieve either the maximum or the minimum final I(2) below a desired pre-set threshold. We applied these algorithms in databases of meta-analyses of binary outcome and >/=4 studies from Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Issue 4, 2005, n = 1011) and meta-analyses of genetic associations (n = 50). Two I(2) thresholds were used (50% and 25%).


Both algorithms have succeeded in achieving the pre-specified final I(2) thresholds. Differences in the number of excluded studies varied from 0% to 6% depending on the database and the heterogeneity threshold, while it was common to exclude different specific studies. Among meta-analyses with initial I(2) > 50%, in the large majority [19 (90.5%) and 208 (85.9%) in genetic and Cochrane meta-analyses, respectively] exclusion of one or two studies sufficed to decrease I(2) < 50%. Similarly, among meta-analyses with initial I(2) > 25%, in most cases [16 (57.1%) and 382 (81.3%), respectively) exclusion of one or two studies sufficed to decrease heterogeneity even <25%. The number of excluded studies correlated modestly with initial estimated I(2) (correlation coefficients 0.52-0.68 depending on algorithm used).


The proposed algorithms can be routinely applied in meta-analyses as standardized sensitivity analyses for heterogeneity. Caution is needed evaluating post hoc which specific studies are responsible for the heterogeneity.

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