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Selection bias in instrumental variable analyses

By Rachael A Hughes, Neil M Davies, George Davey Smith, Kate Tilling

Posted 22 Sep 2017
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/192237

Participants in epidemiological and genetic studies are rarely truly random samples of the populations they are intended to represent, and both known and unknown factors can influence participation in a study (also known as selection into a study). The circumstances in which selection causes bias in an instrumental variable (IV) analysis are not well understood. We use directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) to depict assumptions about the selection mechanism (i.e., the factors affecting selection into the study), and show how DAGs can be used to determine when a two stage least squares (2SLS) IV analysis is biased by selection. For a range of selection mechanisms we explain the structure of the selection bias and, via simulations, we illustrate the potential bias caused by selection in an IV analysis. We show that selection can result in a biased 2SLS estimate of the causal exposure effect, substantial undercoverage of its confidence interval, and the chance of reaching an incorrect conclusion about the causal exposure effect. We consider whether the bias caused by selection differ according to different instrument strengths, between a linear and nonlinear exposure-instrument association, and for a causal and non-causal exposure effect. In addition, we present the results of a real data example where nonrandom selection into the study was suspected. We conclude that selection bias can have a major effect on an IV analysis and that statistical methods for estimating causal effects using data from nonrandom samples are needed.

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