How Big of a Problem is Analytic Error in Secondary Analyses of Survey Data?

Secondary analyses of survey data collected from large probability samples of persons or establishments further scientific progress in many fields. The complex design features of these samples improve data collection efficiency, but also require analysts to account for these features when conducting analysis. Unfortunately, many secondary analysts from fields outside of statistics, biostatistics, and survey methodology do not have adequate training in this area, and as a result may apply incorrect statistical methods when analyzing these survey data sets. This in turn could lead to the publication of incorrect inferences based on the survey data that effectively negate the resources dedicated to these surveys. In this article, we build on the results of a preliminary meta-analysis of 100 peer-reviewed journal articles presenting analyses of data from a variety of national health surveys, which suggested that analytic errors may be extremely prevalent in these types of investigations. We first perform a meta-analysis of a stratified random sample of 145 additional research products analyzing survey data from the Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), which describes features of the U.S. Science and Engineering workforce, and examine trends in the prevalence of analytic error across the decades used to stratify the sample. We once again find that analytic errors appear to be quite prevalent in these studies. Next, we present several example analyses of real SESTAT data, and demonstrate that a failure to perform these analyses correctly can result in substantially biased estimates with standard errors that do not adequately reflect complex sample design features. Collectively, the results of this investigation suggest that reviewers of this type of research need to pay much closer attention to the analytic methods employed by researchers attempting to publish or present secondary analyses of survey data.