Evolution of Reporting P Values in the Biomedical Literature, 1990-2015

JAMA. 2016 Mar 15;315(11):1141-8. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.1952.


Importance: The use and misuse of P values has generated extensive debates.

Objective: To evaluate in large scale the P values reported in the abstracts and full text of biomedical research articles over the past 25 years and determine how frequently statistical information is presented in ways other than P values.

Design: Automated text-mining analysis was performed to extract data on P values reported in 12,821,790 MEDLINE abstracts and in 843,884 abstracts and full-text articles in PubMed Central (PMC) from 1990 to 2015. Reporting of P values in 151 English-language core clinical journals and specific article types as classified by PubMed also was evaluated. A random sample of 1000 MEDLINE abstracts was manually assessed for reporting of P values and other types of statistical information; of those abstracts reporting empirical data, 100 articles were also assessed in full text.

Main outcomes and measures: P values reported.

Results: Text mining identified 4,572,043 P values in 1,608,736 MEDLINE abstracts and 3,438,299 P values in 385,393 PMC full-text articles. Reporting of P values in abstracts increased from 7.3% in 1990 to 15.6% in 2014. In 2014, P values were reported in 33.0% of abstracts from the 151 core clinical journals (n = 29,725 abstracts), 35.7% of meta-analyses (n = 5620), 38.9% of clinical trials (n = 4624), 54.8% of randomized controlled trials (n = 13,544), and 2.4% of reviews (n = 71,529). The distribution of reported P values in abstracts and in full text showed strong clustering at P values of .05 and of .001 or smaller. Over time, the "best" (most statistically significant) reported P values were modestly smaller and the "worst" (least statistically significant) reported P values became modestly less significant. Among the MEDLINE abstracts and PMC full-text articles with P values, 96% reported at least 1 P value of .05 or lower, with the proportion remaining steady over time in PMC full-text articles. In 1000 abstracts that were manually reviewed, 796 were from articles reporting empirical data; P values were reported in 15.7% (125/796 [95% CI, 13.2%-18.4%]) of abstracts, confidence intervals in 2.3% (18/796 [95% CI, 1.3%-3.6%]), Bayes factors in 0% (0/796 [95% CI, 0%-0.5%]), effect sizes in 13.9% (111/796 [95% CI, 11.6%-16.5%]), other information that could lead to estimation of P values in 12.4% (99/796 [95% CI, 10.2%-14.9%]), and qualitative statements about significance in 18.1% (181/1000 [95% CI, 15.8%-20.6%]); only 1.8% (14/796 [95% CI, 1.0%-2.9%]) of abstracts reported at least 1 effect size and at least 1 confidence interval. Among 99 manually extracted full-text articles with data, 55 reported P values, 4 presented confidence intervals for all reported effect sizes, none used Bayesian methods, 1 used false-discovery rates, 3 used sample size/power calculations, and 5 specified the primary outcome.

Conclusions and relevance: In this analysis of P values reported in MEDLINE abstracts and in PMC articles from 1990-2015, more MEDLINE abstracts and articles reported P values over time, almost all abstracts and articles with P values reported statistically significant results, and, in a subgroup analysis, few articles included confidence intervals, Bayes factors, or effect sizes. Rather than reporting isolated P values, articles should include effect sizes and uncertainty metrics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Data Mining / statistics & numerical data
  • MEDLINE / statistics & numerical data
  • Models, Statistical
  • Probability*