Confidence intervals for the between-study variance in random-effects meta-analysis using generalised heterogeneity statistics: should we use unequal tails?

Dan Jackson, Jack Bowden
BMC Medical Research Methodology 2016 September 7, 16 (1): 118

BACKGROUND: Confidence intervals for the between study variance are useful in random-effects meta-analyses because they quantify the uncertainty in the corresponding point estimates. Methods for calculating these confidence intervals have been developed that are based on inverting hypothesis tests using generalised heterogeneity statistics. Whilst, under the random effects model, these new methods furnish confidence intervals with the correct coverage, the resulting intervals are usually very wide, making them uninformative.

METHODS: We discuss a simple strategy for obtaining 95 % confidence intervals for the between-study variance with a markedly reduced width, whilst retaining the nominal coverage probability. Specifically, we consider the possibility of using methods based on generalised heterogeneity statistics with unequal tail probabilities, where the tail probability used to compute the upper bound is greater than 2.5 %. This idea is assessed using four real examples and a variety of simulation studies. Supporting analytical results are also obtained.

RESULTS: Our results provide evidence that using unequal tail probabilities can result in shorter 95 % confidence intervals for the between-study variance. We also show some further results for a real example that illustrates how shorter confidence intervals for the between-study variance can be useful when performing sensitivity analyses for the average effect, which is usually the parameter of primary interest.

CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that using unequal tail probabilities when computing 95 % confidence intervals for the between-study variance, when using methods based on generalised heterogeneity statistics, can result in shorter confidence intervals. We suggest that those who find the case for using unequal tail probabilities convincing should use the '1-4 % split', where greater tail probability is allocated to the upper confidence bound. The 'width-optimal' interval that we present deserves further investigation.

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