Background: The null hypothesis significance test (NHST) is the most frequently used statistical method, although its inferential validity has been widely criticized since its introduction. In 1988, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) warned against sole reliance on NHST to substantiate study conclusions and suggested supplementary use of confidence intervals (CI). Our objective was to evaluate the extent and quality in the use of NHST and CI, both in English and Spanish language biomedical publications between 1995 and 2006, taking into account the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors recommendations, with particular focus on the accuracy of the interpretation of statistical significance and the validity of conclusions.
Methods: Original articles published in three English and three Spanish biomedical journals in three fields (General Medicine, Clinical Specialties and Epidemiology - Public Health) were considered for this study. Papers published in 1995-1996, 2000-2001, and 2005-2006 were selected through a systematic sampling method. After excluding the purely descriptive and theoretical articles, analytic studies were evaluated for their use of NHST with P-values and/or CI for interpretation of statistical "significance" and "relevance" in study conclusions.
Results: Among 1,043 original papers, 874 were selected for detailed review. The exclusive use of P-values was less frequent in English language publications as well as in Public Health journals; overall such use decreased from 41% in 1995-1996 to 21% in 2005-2006. While the use of CI increased over time, the "significance fallacy" (to equate statistical and substantive significance) appeared very often, mainly in journals devoted to clinical specialties (81%). In papers originally written in English and Spanish, 15% and 10%, respectively, mentioned statistical significance in their conclusions.
Conclusions: Overall, results of our review show some improvements in statistical management of statistical results, but further efforts by scholars and journal editors are clearly required to move the communication toward ICMJE advices, especially in the clinical setting, which seems to be imperative among publications in Spanish.