BACKGROUND: The peer review process has been questioned as it may fail to allow the publication of high-quality articles. This study aimed to evaluate the accuracy in identifying inadequate reporting in RCT reports by early career researchers (ECRs) using an online CONSORT-based peer-review tool (COBPeer) versus the usual peer-review process. METHODS: We performed a cross-sectional diagnostic study of 119 manuscripts, from BMC series medical journals, BMJ, BMJ Open, and Annals of Emergency Medicine reporting the results of two-arm parallel-group RCTs. One hundred and nineteen ECRs who had never reviewed an RCT manuscript were recruited from December 2017 to January 2018. Each ECR assessed one manuscript. To assess accuracy in identifying inadequate reporting, we used two tests: (1) ECRs assessing a manuscript using the COBPeer tool (after completing an online training module) and (2) the usual peer-review process. The reference standard was the assessment of the manuscript by two systematic reviewers. Inadequate reporting was defined as incomplete reporting or a switch in primary outcome and considered nine domains: the eight most important CONSORT domains and a switch in primary outcome(s). The primary outcome was the mean number of domains accurately classified (scale from 0 to 9). RESULTS: The mean (SD) number of domains (0 to 9) accurately classified per manuscript was 6.39 (1.49) for ECRs using COBPeer versus 5.03 (1.84) for the journal's usual peer-review process, with a mean difference [95% CI] of 1.36 [0.88-1.84] (p < 0.001). Concerning secondary outcomes, the sensitivity of ECRs using COBPeer versus the usual peer-review process in detecting incompletely reported CONSORT items was 86% [95% CI 82-89] versus 20% [16-24] and in identifying a switch in primary outcome 61% [44-77] versus 11% [3-26]. The specificity of ECRs using COBPeer versus the usual process to detect incompletely reported CONSORT domains was 61% [57-65] versus 77% [74-81] and to identify a switch in primary outcome 77% [67-86] versus 98% [92-100]. CONCLUSIONS: Trained ECRs using the COBPeer tool were more likely to detect inadequate reporting in RCTs than the usual peer review processes used by journals. Implementing a two-step peer-review process could help improve the quality of reporting. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Clinical.Trials.gov NCT03119376 (Registered April, 18, 2017).
CONSORT statement, Peer reviewers, Randomized controlled trials, Reporting