European Science Editing 46: e50999, doi: 10.3897/ese.2020.e50999

Editors should allow only significant digits

‡ Retired managing editor and copy editor, Woerden, Netherlands

Corresponding author: Arjan Polderman ( polderman.arjan@gmail.com ) Academic editor: Ksenija Bazdaric © Arjan Polderman. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Citation:
Polderman A (2020) Editors should allow only significant digits. European Science Editing 46: e50999. https://doi.org/10.3897/ese.2020.e50999 |

Abstract

“Out of 80 experiments, 45 (56.3%) had a favourable outcome.” If you read this sentence in a manuscript, would you want to edit the figures?

I certainly would. There are too many digits in ‘56.3%’. The decimal 3 is meaningless; 56% is precise enough. If the number of favourable outcomes is 44, the percentage score is 55%; with 46 successes it is 58%. There is no uncertainty here.

But what should we do when we are dealing with 237 out of 623? Both 237 and 238 result in a score of 38%. Wouldn’t it be wise to distinguish these outcomes by writing 38.0% and 38.2% respectively? Well, if such precision is important, we can simply present the absolute values. Absolute values are always accurate; percentages and fractions are only approximations.

What might be the purpose of accurate percentages? I appreciate that percentage scores and fractions are better for comparisons than absolute values. With percentages I can see at a glance that 237/623 is more than 165/465 (38% and 35% respectively). Percentages are quick – and inaccurate, even with additional decimals.