Consistency of causal claims in observational studies: A review of papers published in a general medical journal

Camila Olarte Parra, Lorenzo Bertizzolo, Sara Schroter, Agnès Dechartres, Els Goetghebeur

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Objective To evaluate the consistency of causal statements in observational studies published in The BMJ. Design Review of observational studies published in a general medical journal. Data source Cohort and other longitudinal studies describing an exposure-outcome relationship published in The BMJ in 2018. We also had access to the submitted papers and reviewer reports. Main outcome measures Proportion of published research papers with 'inconsistent' use of causal language. Papers where language was consistently causal or non-causal were classified as 'consistently causal' or 'consistently not causal', respectively. For the 'inconsistent' papers, we then compared the published and submitted version. Results Of 151 published research papers, 60 described eligible studies. Of these 60, we classified the causal language used as 'consistently causal' (48%), 'inconsistent' (20%) and 'consistently not causal'(32%). Eleven out of 12 (92%) of the 'inconsistent' papers were already inconsistent on submission. The inconsistencies found in both submitted and published versions were mainly due to mismatches between objectives and conclusions. One section might be carefully phrased in terms of association while the other presented causal language. When identifying only an association, some authors jumped to recommending acting on the findings as if motivated by the evidence presented. Conclusion Further guidance is necessary for authors on what constitutes a causal statement and how to justify or discuss assumptions involved. Based on screening these papers, we provide a list of expressions beyond the obvious 'cause' word which may inspire a useful more comprehensive compendium on causal language.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere043339
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2021


  • education & training (see medical education & training)
  • epidemiology
  • statistics & research methods

Cite this