Misuse of Odds Ratios in Obesity Literature: An Empirical Analysis of Published Studies

Department of Health Care Organization and Policy, School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA.
Obesity (Impact Factor: 3.73). 03/2012; 20(8):1726-31. DOI: 10.1038/oby.2012.71
Source: PubMed


Odds ratios (ORs) are widely used in scientific research to demonstrate the associations between outcome variables and covariates (risk factors) of interest, and are often described in language suitable for risks or probabilities, but odds and probabilities are related, not equivalent. In situations where the outcome is not rare (e.g., obesity), ORs no longer approximate the relative risk ratio (RR) and may be misinterpreted. Our study examines the extent of misinterpretation of ORs in Obesity and International Journal of Obesity. We reviewed all 2010 issues of these journals to identify all articles that presented ORs. Included articles were then primarily reviewed for correct presentation and interpretation of ORs; and secondarily reviewed for article characteristics that may have been associated with how ORs are presented and interpreted. Of the 855 articles examined, 62 (7.3%) presented ORs. ORs were presented incorrectly in 23.2% of these articles. Clinical articles were more likely to present ORs correctly than social science or basic science articles. Studies with outcome variables that had higher relative prevalence were less likely to present ORs correctly. Overall, almost one-quarter of the studies presenting ORs in two leading journals on obesity misinterpreted them. Furthermore, even when researchers present ORs correctly, the lay media may misinterpret them as relative RRs. Therefore, we suggest that when the magnitude of associations is of interest, researchers should carefully and accurately present interpretable measures of association--including RRs and risk differences--to minimize confusion and misrepresentation of research results.

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