Causal and Associational Language in Observational Health Research: A Systematic Evaluation


We screened over 1,000 articles from 18 high-profile journals published from 2010-2019 to review the use of causal language to describe results in experimental and observational data.


Noah Haber, et al


November 19, 2022

We estimated the degree to which language used in the high-profile medical/public health/epidemiology literature implied causality using language linking exposures to outcomes and action recommendations; examined disconnects between language and recommendations; identified the most common linking phrases; and estimated how strongly linking phrases imply causality. We searched for and screened 1,170 articles from 18 high-profile journals (65 per journal) published from 2010-2019. Based on written framing and systematic guidance, 3 reviewers rated the degree of causality implied in abstracts and full text for exposure/outcome linking language and action recommendations. Reviewers rated the causal implication of exposure/outcome linking language as none (no causal implication) in 13.8%, weak in 34.2%, moderate in 33.2%, and strong in 18.7% of abstracts. The implied causality of action recommendations was higher than the implied causality of linking sentences for 44.5% or commensurate for 40.3% of articles. The most common linking word in abstracts was “associate” (45.7%). Reviewers’ ratings of linking word roots were highly heterogeneous; over half of reviewers rated “association” as having at least some causal implication. This research undercuts the assumption that avoiding “causal” words leads to clarity of interpretation in medical research.