BACKGROUND: Abstracts of presentations at scientific meetings are usually available only in conference proceedings. If subsequent full publication of abstract results is based on the magnitude or direction of study results, publication bias may result. Publication bias, in turn, creates problems for those conducting systematic reviews or relying on the published literature for evidence.OBJECTIVES: To determine the rate at which abstract results are subsequently published in full, and the time between meeting presentation and full publication. To assess the association between study characteristics and full publication.SEARCH STRATEGY: We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, The Cochrane Library, Science Citation Index, reference lists, and author files. Date of most recent search: June 2003.SELECTION CRITERIA: We included all reports that examined the subsequent full publication rate of biomedical results initially presented as abstracts or in summary form. Follow-up of abstracts had to be at least two years.DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two reviewers extracted data. We calculated the weighted mean full publication rate and time to full publication. Dichotomous variables were analyzed using relative risk and random effects models. We assessed time to publication using Kaplan-Meier survival analyses.MAIN RESULTS: Combining data from 79 reports (29,729 abstracts) resulted in a weighted mean full publication rate of 44.5% (95% confidence interval (CI) 43.9 to 45.1). Survival analyses resulted in an estimated publication rate at 9 years of 52.6% for all studies, 63.1% for randomized or controlled clinical trials, and 49.3% for other types of study designs.'Positive' results defined as any 'significant' result showed an association with full publication (RR = 1.30; CI 1.14 to 1.47), as did 'positive' results defined as a result favoring the experimental treatment (RR =1.17; CI 1.02 to 1.35), and 'positive' results emanating from randomized or controlled clinical trials (RR = 1.18, CI 1.07 to 1.30). Other factors associated with full publication include oral presentation (RR = 1.28; CI 1.09 to 1.49); acceptance for meeting presentation (RR = 1.78; CI 1.50 to 2.12); randomized trial study design (RR = 1.24; CI 1.14 to 1.36); and basic research (RR = 0.79; CI 0.70 to 0.89). Higher quality of abstracts describing randomized or controlled clinical trials was also associated with full publication (RR = 1.30, CI 1.00 to 1.71).AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Only 63% of results from abstracts describing randomized or controlled clinical trials are published in full. 'Positive' results were more frequently published than not 'positive' results.