Previous applications of value of information methods for determining optimal sample size in randomized clinical trials have assumed no between-study variation in mean incremental net benefit. By adopting a hierarchical model, we provide a solution for determining optimal sample size with this assumption relaxed. The solution is illustrated with two examples from the literature. Expected net gain increases with increasing between-study variation, reflecting the increased uncertainty in incremental net benefit and reduced extent to which data are borrowed from previous evidence. Hence, a trial can become optimal where current evidence is sufficient assuming no between-study variation. However, despite the expected net gain increasing, the optimal sample size in the illustrated examples is relatively insensitive to the amount of between-study variation. Further percentage losses in expected net gain were small even when choosing sample sizes that reflected widely different between-study variation. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.