All relevant studies must undergo a critical appraisal to evaluate the risk of bias, or internal and external validity, of all relevant references.
Critical appraisal is also referred to as quality assessment, risk of bias assessment, and similar variations. Sometimes the critical appraisal phase is confused with the assessment of certainty of evidence - although related, these are independent stages of the systematic review process.
According to the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM):
"Critical appraisal is the process of carefully and systematically assessing the outcome of scientific research (evidence) to judge its trustworthiness, value and relevance in a particular context. Critical appraisal looks at the way a study is conducted and examines factors such as internal validity, generalizability and relevance."
Systematic reviews require a formal, systematic, uniform appraisal of the quality - or risk of bias - of all relevant studies. In a critical appraisal, you are examining the methods not the results.
Use risk of bias tools for this stage - these tools are often formatted as checklists. You can find more about risk of bias tools in the next tab! If a refresher of some common biases, definitions, and examples is helpful, check out the Catalogue of Bias from the University of Oxford and CEBM.
Just like the other stages of a systematic review, 2 reviewers should assess risk of bias in each reference. As such, your team should calculate and report interrater reliability, deciding ahead of time how to resolve conflicts. Oftentimes the critical appraisal occurs at the same time as data extraction.
In addition to the formal risk of bias assessment, your team should also consider meta-biases like publication bias, selective reporting, etc. Search for errata and retractions related to included research, and consider other limitations of and concerns about the included studies and how this may impact the reliability of your review.
The critical appraisal is inherently subjective, from the selection of the RoB tool(s) to the final assessment of each study. Therefore, it is important to consider how tools compare, and how this process may impact the results of your review. Check out these studies evaluating Risk of Bias Tools:
Page MJ, McKenzie JE, Higgins JPT Tools for assessing risk of reporting biases in studies and syntheses of studies: a systematic review BMJ Open 2018;8:e019703. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019703
Losilla, J.-M., Oliveras, I., Marin-Garcia, J. A., & Vives, J. (2018). Three risk of bias tools lead to opposite conclusions in observational research synthesis. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 101, 61–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2018.05.021
Margulis, A. V., Pladevall, M., Riera-Guardia, N., Varas-Lorenzo, C., Hazell, L., Berkman, N., Viswanathan, M., & Perez-Gutthann, S. (2014). Quality assessment of observational studies in a drug-safety systematic review, comparison of two tools: The Newcastle-Ottawa Scale and the RTI item bank. Clinical Epidemiology, 359. https://doi.org/10.2147/CLEP.S66677
When you think of a critical appraisal in a systematic review and/or meta-analysis, think of assessing the risk of bias of included studies. The potential biases to consider will vary by study design. Therefore, risk of bias tool(s) should be selected based on the designs of included studies. If you include more than one study design, you'll include more than one risk of bias tool. Whenever possible, select tools developed for a discipline relevant to your topic.
Risk of bias tools are simply checklists used to consider bias specific to a study design, and sometimes discipline.
Risk of bias toolsets are a series of tools developed by the same group or organization, where each tool addresses a specific study design. The organization is usually discipline specific. Note that many also include a systematic review and/or meta-analysis quality assessment tool, but that these tools will not be useful during this stage as existing reviews will not be folded into your synthesis.
Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) Checklists include tools for:
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Study Quality Assessment Tools include tools for:
Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) includes tools for:
Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) Manual for Evidence Synthesis includes the following tools found in respective relevant chapters:
Risk of bias tool repositories are curated lists of existing tools - kind of like what we've presented above. Although we update this guide with new tools as we find them, these repositories may contain additional resources:
Risk of bias within each reference should be presented in a table like the one seen below. Studies are presented along the y-axis and biases considered (what is addressed by the tool) along the x-axis, such that each row belongs to a study, and each column belongs to a bias (or domain/category of biases).
It is also best practice to present the bias across the included set of literature (seen below). Each bias or bias category is represented as a row and each row is associated with a bar showing the percentage of the total included literature that was rated as low risk, some risk, high risk, or unable to determine the risk.
The images above can be created using the ROBVIS package of metaverse for evidence synthesis in R. You can create your own graphics without using this software.
Chapter 7: Considering bias and conflicts of interest among the included studies
Chapter 8: Assessing risk of bias in randomized trial
Chapter 25: Risk of bias in non-randomized studies
Conducting systematic reviews of intervention questions II: Relevance screening, data extraction, assessing risk of bias, presenting the results and interpreting the findings. Sargeant JM, O’Connor AM. Zoonoses Public Health. 2014 Jun;61 Suppl 1:39-51. doi: 10.1111/zph.12124. PMID: 24905995
C51. Assessing risk of bias / study quality (protocol & review / final manuscript)
C52. Assessing risk of bias / study quality in duplicate (protocol & review / final manuscript)
C53. Supporting judgements of risk of bias / study quality (review / final manuscript)
C54. Providing sources of information for risk of bias / study quality assessments (review / final manuscript)
C55. Differentiating between performance bias and detection bias (protocol & review / final manuscript)
C56. If applicable, assessing risk of bias due to lack of blinding for different outcomes (review / final manuscript)
C57. If applicable, assessing completeness of data for different outcomes (review / final manuscript)
C58. If applicable, summarizing risk of bias when using the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool (review / final manuscript)
C59. Addressing risk of bias / study quality in the synthesis (review / final manuscript)
C60. Incorporating assessments of risk of bias (review / final manuscript)
...planned approach to assessing risk of bias should include the constructs being assessed and a definition for each, reviewer judgment options (high, low, unclear), the number of assessors...training, piloting, previous risk of bias assessment experience...method(s) of assessment (independent or in duplicate)...
"...summarise risk of bias assessments across studies or outcomes..."
"...describe how risk of bias assessments will be incorporated into data synthesis (that is, subgroup or sensitivity analyses) and their potential influence on findings of the review (Item 15c) in the protocol..."
For the critical appraisal stage, PRISMA requires specific items to be addressed in both the methods and results section.
If assessments of risk of bias were done for specific outcomes or results in each study, consider displaying risk of bias judgments on a forest plot, next to the study results, so that the limitations of studies contributing to a particular meta-analysis are evident (see Sterne et al86 for an example forest plot).