Statnote 32 : the partial correlation coefficient

Armstrong, Richard and Hilton, Anthony Statnote 32 : the partial correlation coefficient. Microbiologist , pp. 28-30.


In previous statnotes, the application of correlation and regression methods to the analysis of two variables (X,Y) was described. The most important statistic used to measure the degree of correlation between two variables is Pearson’s ‘product moment correlation coefficient’ (‘r’). The correlation between two variables may be due to their common relation to other variables. Hence, investigators using correlation studies need to be alert to the possibilities of spurious correlation and the methods of ‘partial correlation’ are one method of taking this into account. This statnote applies the methods of partial correlation to three scenarios. First, to a fairly obvious example of a spurious correlation resulting from the ‘size effect’ involving the relationship between the number of general practitioners (GP) and the number of deaths of patients in a town. Second, to the relationship between the abundance of the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Azotobacter in soil and three soil variables, and finally, to a more complex scenario, first introduced in Statnote 24involving the relationship between the growth of lichens in the field and climate.


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