Open Access Research article

Comparison of methods for imputing limited-range variables: a simulation study

Laura Rodwell12*, Katherine J Lee12, Helena Romaniuk123 and John B Carlin12

Author Affiliations

1 Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Unit, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Flemington Road, Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria 3052, Australia

2 Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

3 Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014, 14:57  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-57

Published: 26 April 2014



Multiple imputation (MI) was developed as a method to enable valid inferences to be obtained in the presence of missing data rather than to re-create the missing values. Within the applied setting, it remains unclear how important it is that imputed values should be plausible for individual observations. One variable type for which MI may lead to implausible values is a limited-range variable, where imputed values may fall outside the observable range. The aim of this work was to compare methods for imputing limited-range variables, with a focus on those that restrict the range of the imputed values.


Using data from a study of adolescent health, we consider three variables based on responses to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a tool for detecting minor psychiatric illness. These variables, based on different scoring methods for the GHQ, resulted in three continuous distributions with mild, moderate and severe positive skewness. In an otherwise complete dataset, we set 33% of the GHQ observations to missing completely at random or missing at random; repeating this process to create 1000 datasets with incomplete data for each scenario.

For each dataset, we imputed values on the raw scale and following a zero-skewness log transformation using: univariate regression with no rounding; post-imputation rounding; truncated normal regression; and predictive mean matching. We estimated the marginal mean of the GHQ and the association between the GHQ and a fully observed binary outcome, comparing the results with complete data statistics.


Imputation with no rounding performed well when applied to data on the raw scale. Post-imputation rounding and imputation using truncated normal regression produced higher marginal means than the complete data estimate when data had a moderate or severe skew, and this was associated with under-coverage of the complete data estimate. Predictive mean matching also produced under-coverage of the complete data estimate. For the estimate of association, all methods produced similar estimates to the complete data.


For data with a limited range, multiple imputation using techniques that restrict the range of imputed values can result in biased estimates for the marginal mean when data are highly skewed.

Multiple imputation; Limited-range; Skewed data; Missing data; Rounding; Truncated regression