The intriguing evolution of effect sizes in biomedical research over time: smaller but more often statistically significant

Gigascience. 2018 Jan 1;7(1):1-10. doi: 10.1093/gigascience/gix121.


Background: In medicine, effect sizes (ESs) allow the effects of independent variables (including risk/protective factors or treatment interventions) on dependent variables (e.g., health outcomes) to be quantified. Given that many public health decisions and health care policies are based on ES estimates, it is important to assess how ESs are used in the biomedical literature and to investigate potential trends in their reporting over time.

Results: Through a big data approach, the text mining process automatically extracted 814 120 ESs from 13 322 754 PubMed abstracts. Eligible ESs were risk ratio, odds ratio, and hazard ratio, along with their confidence intervals. Here we show a remarkable decrease of ES values in PubMed abstracts between 1990 and 2015 while, concomitantly, results become more often statistically significant. Medians of ES values have decreased over time for both "risk" and "protective" values. This trend was found in nearly all fields of biomedical research, with the most marked downward tendency in genetics. Over the same period, the proportion of statistically significant ESs increased regularly: among the abstracts with at least 1 ES, 74% were statistically significant in 1990-1995, vs 85% in 2010-2015.

Conclusions: whereas decreasing ESs could be an intrinsic evolution in biomedical research, the concomitant increase of statistically significant results is more intriguing. Although it is likely that growing sample sizes in biomedical research could explain these results, another explanation may lie in the "publish or perish" context of scientific research, with the probability of a growing orientation toward sensationalism in research reports. Important provisions must be made to improve the credibility of biomedical research and limit waste of resources.

Keywords: biomedical research; data mining; effect size; meta-research; “publish or perish”.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abstracting and Indexing
  • Bibliometrics*
  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Mining / statistics & numerical data*
  • Genetics, Medical / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Odds Ratio
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Sample Size