RNA-seq is increasingly used for quantitative profiling of small RNAs (for example, microRNAs, piRNAs and snoRNAs) in diverse sample types, including isolated cells, tissues and cell-free biofluids. The accuracy and reproducibility of the currently used small RNA-seq library preparation methods have not been systematically tested. Here we report results obtained by a consortium of nine labs that independently sequenced reference, 'ground truth' samples of synthetic small RNAs and human plasma-derived RNA. We assessed three commercially available library preparation methods that use adapters of defined sequence and six methods using adapters with degenerate bases. Both protocol- and sequence-specific biases were identified, including biases that reduced the ability of small RNA-seq to accurately measure adenosine-to-inosine editing in microRNAs. We found that these biases were mitigated by library preparation methods that incorporate adapters with degenerate bases. MicroRNA relative quantification between samples using small RNA-seq was accurate and reproducible across laboratories and methods.