Like other parametric tests, the analysis of variance assumes that the data fit the normal distribution. If your measurement variable is not normally distributed, you may be increasing your chance of a false positive result if you analyze the data with an anova or other test that assumes normality. Fortunately, an anova is not very sensitive to moderate deviations from normality; simulation studies, using a variety of non-normal distributions, have shown that the false positive rate is not affected very much by this violation of the assumption (Glass et al. 1972, Harwell et al. 1992, Lix et al. 1996). This is because when you take a large number of random samples from a population, the means of those samples are approximately normally distributed even when the population is not normal.
It is possible to test the goodness-of-fit of a data set to the normal distribution. I do not suggest that you do this, because many data sets that are significantly non-normal would be perfectly appropriate for an anova.
Instead, if you have a large enough data set, I suggest you just look at the frequency histogram. If it looks more-or-less normal, go ahead and perform an anova. If it looks like a normal distribution that has been pushed to one side, like the sulphate data above, you should try different data transformations and see if any of them make the histogram look more normal. If that doesn't work, and the data still look severely non-normal, it's probably still okay to analyze the data using an anova. However, you may want to analyze it using a non-parametric test. Just about every parametric statistical test has a non-parametric substitute, such as the Kruskal–Wallis test instead of a one-way anova, Wilcoxon signed-rank test instead of a paired t-test, and Spearman rank correlation instead of linear regression. These non-parametric tests do not assume that the data fit the normal distribution. They do assume that the data in different groups have the same distribution as each other, however; if different groups have different shaped distributions (for example, one is skewed to the left, another is skewed to the right), a non-parametric test may not be any better than a parametric one.
- Glass, G.V., P.D. Peckham, and J.R. Sanders. 1972. Consequences of failure to meet assumptions underlying fixed effects analyses of variance and covariance. Rev. Educ. Res. 42: 237-288.
- Harwell, M.R., E.N. Rubinstein, W.S. Hayes, and C.C. Olds. 1992. Summarizing Monte Carlo results in methodological research: the one- and two-factor fixed effects ANOVA cases. J. Educ. Stat. 17: 315-339.
- Lix, L.M., J.C. Keselman, and H.J. Keselman. 1996. Consequences of assumption violations revisited: A quantitative review of alternatives to the one-way analysis of variance F test. Rev. Educ. Res. 66: 579-619.