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Klau, Simon; Hoffmann, Sabine; Patel, Chirag J.; Ioannidis, John Pa; Boulesteix, Anne-Laure (2021): Examining the robustness of observational associations to model, measurement and sampling uncertainty with the vibration of effects framework. In: International Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 50, No. 1: pp. 266-278
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BACKGROUND The results of studies on observational associations may vary depending on the study design and analysis choices as well as due to measurement error. It is important to understand the relative contribution of different factors towards generating variable results, including low sample sizes, researchers' flexibility in model choices, and measurement error in variables of interest and adjustment variables. METHODS We define sampling, model and measurement uncertainty, and extend the concept of vibration of effects in order to study these three types of uncertainty in a common framework. In a practical application, we examine these types of uncertainty in a Cox model using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In addition, we analyse the behaviour of sampling, model and measurement uncertainty for varying sample sizes in a simulation study. RESULTS All types of uncertainty are associated with a potentially large variability in effect estimates. Measurement error in the variable of interest attenuates the true effect in most cases, but can occasionally lead to overestimation. When we consider measurement error in both the variable of interest and adjustment variables, the vibration of effects are even less predictable as both systematic under- and over-estimation of the true effect can be observed. The results on simulated data show that measurement and model vibration remain non-negligible even for large sample sizes. CONCLUSION Sampling, model and measurement uncertainty can have important consequences for the stability of observational associations. We recommend systematically studying and reporting these types of uncertainty, and comparing them in a common framework.