Fabricating data: how substituting values for nondetects can ruin results, and what can be done about it

Chemosphere. 2006 Dec;65(11):2434-9. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2006.04.051. Epub 2006 Jun 5.


The most commonly used method in environmental chemistry to deal with values below detection limits is to substitute a fraction of the detection limit for each nondetect. Two decades of research has shown that this fabrication of values produces poor estimates of statistics, and commonly obscures patterns and trends in the data. Papers using substitution may conclude that significant differences, correlations, and regression relationships do not exist, when in fact they do. The reverse may also be true. Fortunately, good alternative methods for dealing with nondetects already exist, and are summarized here with references to original sources. Substituting values for nondetects should be used rarely, and should generally be considered unacceptable in scientific research. There are better ways.

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity