Volume 11 Issue 1 (2015)
Provocative Idea

The Lay Public's Misinterpretation of the Meaning of 'Significant': A Call for Simple yet Significant Changes in Scientific Reporting

Philip Tromovitch
Doshisha University
Published February 16, 2015
  • scientific writing,
  • research reporting,
  • communication,
  • statistical significance


A large national sample of U.S. adults (n > 1,000) was queried regarding their interpretation of the term significant when used in regard to scientific findings. The vast majority provided incorrect interpretations of the meaning with only 5.8% providing a reasonably correct interpretation. Most respondents who reported they hold doctoral degrees provided incorrect interpretations. Given the widespread misinterpretation of this term, scientific journals should require—not merely recommend—that all usages of the term significant be prefaced with an adjective (e.g., statistically, practically, clinically) and that the meaning of statistical significance be reviewed prior to its first usage. Additionally, all claims regarding the size of a finding should be required to be supported with appropriate effect size statistics to ensure that statistical significance is not misrepresented as indicating practical significance.