Automating Quality Assessment of Medical Evidence in Systematic Reviews: Model Development and Validation Study
Background: Assessment of the quality of medical evidence available on the web is a critical step in the preparation of systematic reviews. Existing tools that automate parts of this task validate the quality of individual studies but not of entire bodies of evidence and focus on a restricted set of quality criteria. Objective: We proposed a quality assessment task that provides an overall quality rating for each body of evidence (BoE), as well as finer-grained justification for different quality criteria according to the Grading of Recommendation, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation formalization framework. For this purpose, we constructed a new data set and developed a machine learning baseline system (EvidenceGRADEr). Methods: We algorithmically extracted quality-related data from all summaries of findings found in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Each BoE was defined by a set of population, intervention, comparison, and outcome criteria and assigned a quality grade (high, moderate, low, or very low) together with quality criteria (justification) that influenced that decision. Different statistical data, metadata about the review, and parts of the review text were extracted as support for grading each BoE. After pruning the resulting data set with various quality checks, we used it to train several neural-model variants. The predictions were compared against the labels originally assigned by the authors of the systematic reviews. Results: Our quality assessment data set, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Quality of Evidence, contains 13,440 instances, or BoEs labeled for quality, originating from 2252 systematic reviews published on the internet from 2002 to 2020. On the basis of a 10-fold cross-validation, the best neural binary classifiers for quality criteria detected risk of bias at 0.78 F1 (P=.68; R=0.92) and imprecision at 0.75 F1 (P=.66; R=0.86), while the performance on inconsistency, indirectness, and publication bias criteria was lower (F1 in the range of 0.3-0.4). The prediction of the overall quality grade into 1 of the 4 levels resulted in 0.5 F1. When casting the task as a binary problem by merging the Grading of Recommendation, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation classes (high+moderate vs low+very low-quality evidence), we attained 0.74 F1. We also found that the results varied depending on the supporting information that is provided as an input to the models. Conclusions: Different factors affect the quality of evidence in the context of systematic reviews of medical evidence. Some of these (risk of bias and imprecision) can be automated with reasonable accuracy. Other quality dimensions such as indirectness, inconsistency, and publication bias prove more challenging for machine learning, largely because they are much rarer. This technology could substantially reduce reviewer workload in the future and expedite quality assessment as part of evidence synthesis.