Background: Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of observational studies are frequently performed, but no widely accepted guidance is available at present. We performed a systematic scoping review of published methodological recommendations on how to systematically review and meta-analyse observational studies.
Methods: We searched online databases and websites and contacted experts in the field to locate potentially eligible articles. We included articles that provided any type of recommendation on how to conduct systematic reviews and meta-analyses of observational studies. We extracted and summarised recommendations on pre-defined key items: protocol development, research question, search strategy, study eligibility, data extraction, dealing with different study designs, risk of bias assessment, publication bias, heterogeneity, statistical analysis. We summarised recommendations by key item, identifying areas of agreement and disagreement as well as areas where recommendations were missing or scarce.
Results: The searches identified 2461 articles of which 93 were eligible. Many recommendations for reviews and metaanalyses of observational studies were transferred from guidance developed for reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs. Although there was substantial agreement in some methodological areas there was also considerable disagreement on how evidence synthesis of observational studies should be conducted. Conflicting recommendations were seen on topics such as the inclusion of different study designs in systematic reviews and meta-analyses, the use of quality scales to assess the risk of bias, and the choice of model (e.g. fixed vs. random effects) for meta-analysis.
Conclusion: There is a need for sound methodological guidance on how to conduct systematic reviews and metaanalyses of observational studies, which critically considers areas in which there are conflicting recommendations.