OBJECTIVE: To examine how the first randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating the efficacy of cholesterol-lowering diets in the secondary prevention of coronary heart disease were interpreted in reviews of the literature prior to the National Institutes of Health consensus conference in 1984.
DESIGN: Claim-specific citation network analysis was used to study the network of citations between reviews and RCTs over a defined period (1969-1984). RCTs were identified and classified according to whether their conclusions supported or opposed the use of dietary fat modification/restriction in the secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. Each review published in this period that cited any of the RCTs was classified as supportive, neutral, or unsupportive to the use of dietary fat modification based on a quotation analysis of its evaluation of the findings of these RCTs. Citation bias and underutilisation were detected by applying a comparative density measure, in-degree centrality, and out-degree in a series of sub-graph analyses.
RESULTS: In total, 66 unique publications were identified (four RCTs-one supportive, three unsupportive; 62 reviews-28 supportive, 17 neutral, 17 unsupportive). On average, supportive reviews underutilised the available RCTs to a greater degree than other reviews. Amongst the supportive group, citation bias was common-23 (82%) reviews cited only the one RCT that was supportive.
CONCLUSION: Most reviews that disseminated a supportive evaluation of the results of RCTs in the context of secondary prevention cited only data that supported this position.