Principles and framework for assessing the risk of bias for studies included in comparative quantitative environmental systematic reviews
The internal validity of conclusions about effectiveness or impact in systematic reviews, and of decisions based on them, depends on risk of bias assessments being conducted appropriately. However, a random sample of 50 recently-published articles claiming to be quantitative environmental systematic reviews found 64% did not include any risk of bias assessment, whilst nearly all that did omitted key sources of bias. Other limitations included lack of transparency, conflation of quality constructs, and incomplete application of risk of bias assessments to the data synthesis. This paper addresses deficiencies in risk of bias assessments by highlighting core principles that are required for risk of bias assessments to be fit-for-purpose, and presenting a framework based on these principles to guide review teams on conducting risk of bias assessments appropriately and consistently. The core principles require that risk of bias assessments be Focused, Extensive, Applied and Transparent (FEAT). These principles support risk of bias assessments, appraisal of risk of bias tools, and the development of new tools. The framework follows a Plan-Conduct-Apply-Report approach covering all stages of risk of bias assessment. The scope of this paper is comparative quantitative environmental systematic reviews which address PICO or PECO-type questions including, but not limited to, topic areas such as environmental management, conservation, ecosystem restoration, and analyses of environmental interventions, exposures, impacts and risks.