Is rigorous retrospective harmonization possible? Application of the DataSHaPER approach across 53 large studies

Isabel Fortier*, Dany Doiron, Julian Little, Vincent Ferretti, Francois L'Heureux, Ronald P. Stolk, Bartha M. Knoppers, Thomas J. Hudson, Paul R. Burton, Int Harmonization Initiative

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Methods This article examines the value of using the DataSHaPER for retrospective harmonization of established studies. Using the DataSHaPER approach, the potential to generate 148 harmonized variables from the questionnaires and physical measures collected in 53 large population-based studies (6.9 million participants) was assessed. Variable and study characteristics that might influence the potential for data synthesis were also explored.

Results Out of all assessment items evaluated (148 variables for each of the 53 studies), 38% could be harmonized. Certain characteristics of variables (i.e. relative importance, individual targeted, reference period) and of studies (i.e. observational units, data collection start date and mode of questionnaire administration) were associated with the potential for harmonization. For example, for variables deemed to be essential, 62% of assessment items paired could be harmonized.

Conclusion The current article shows that the DataSHaPER provides an effective and flexible approach for the retrospective harmonization of information across studies. To implement data synthesis, some additional scientific, ethico-legal and technical considerations must be addressed. The success of the DataSHaPER as a harmonization approach will depend on its continuing development and on the rigour and extent of its use. The DataSHaPER has the potential to take us closer to a truly collaborative epidemiology and offers the promise of enhanced research potential generated through synthesized databases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1314-1328
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct-2011


  • Data synthesis
  • data quality
  • data pooling
  • harmonization
  • meta-analysis
  • DataSHaPER
  • retrospective harmonization

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