I recently discovered penalized likelihood ratio methods to cope with sparse and/or separated data.

I'm having some problems though in understanding the results a logistic regression using Firth method (package logistf in R) give back.

I have a dataset with an outcome and a predictor, both dichotomous:

      Y.yes Y.no
X.yes 0     22
X.no  7     356

I perform the regressions using logistf() switching the pl and the firth parameters.

  • pl specifies if confidence intervals and tests should be based on the profile penalized log likelihood (pl=TRUE) or on the Wald method (pl=FALSE).
  • firth use of Firth's penalized maximum likelihood (firth=TRUE) or the standard maximum likelihood method (firth=FALSE) for the logistic regression.

coefficients, CIs and p values for the xYes case versus xNo are shown.

1. pl=T;firth=T    coef:-3.5    ci.low:-11.6   ci.high:4.85   p.val:1
2. pl=F;firth=T    coef:-3.5    ci.low:-7.89   ci.high:0.88   p.val:0.117
3. pl=T;firth=F    coef:-2.96   ci.low:-11.1   ci.high:1.08   p.val:1
4. pl=F;firth=F    coef:-2.96   ci.low:-8.17   ci.high:2.24   p.val:0.264

I also show results for classical ML logistic via glm():

5. glm   coef:-14.6   ci.low:NA   ci.high:118   p.val:0.992

As we can see, CIs are improved in logistf because we don't find anymore more extreme values or NA or infinite. Still I'm not well sure which option to choose. The fourth model, with both options set false, in my understanding should be identical to normal glm(), while it's clearly not. Also I don't get why choosing Wald CI method (model 2 and 4) improve p values so much in comparison to profile penalized likelihood (model 1 and 3). Moreover choosing Wald CIs gives also shorter CIs ranges.

Things get stranger if I had another binomial covariate X2:

                Y.yes  Y.no
X1.yes  X2.yes  0      12
        X2.no   0      10

X1.no   X2.yes  6      191
        X2.no   1      165

Here are the regressions:

1. pl=T;firth=T    
    X1 coef:-1.63    ci.low:-2.79   ci.high:-0.38   p.val:1
    X2 coef:3.15     ci.low:-0.72   ci.high:11.2    p.val:1
2. pl=F;firth=T    
    X1 coef:-1.63    ci.low:-4.24   ci.high:0.97    p.val:0.220
    X2 coef:3.15     ci.low:-2.11   ci.high:8.42    p.val:0.240
3. pl=T;firth=F    
    X1 coef:-1.08    ci.low:-5.17   ci.high:2.86    p.val:0.006
    X2 coef:3.35     ci.low:1.48    ci.high:11.5    p.val:1
4. pl=F;firth=F    
    X1 coef:-1.08    ci.low:-4.27   ci.high:2.10    p.val:0.504
    X2 coef:3.35     ci.low:-2.71   ci.high:9.42    p.val:0.279
5. glm()    
    X1 coef:-15.6    ci.low:NA      ci.high:196.4   p.val:0.994
    X2 coef:1.645    ci.low:-0.13   ci.high:4.58    p.val:0.130

In the results we see some oddities: in model 1, where CIs are both below the zero but nevertheless the regression has a maximal p value; while in model 3 we have the opposite, that is significant p value but non significant CIs.and again in glm we have totally different values. Furthermore p values change dramatically in the different models, meaning that choosing the wrong model would totally change interpretation of the study!

So my question are, how can I explain the results I reported above? and then, which criteria should I follow to choose the right options for logistf?



1 Answer 1


The fact that firth=FALSE doesn't give similar results to glm is puzzling to me -- hopefully someone else can answer. As far as pl goes, though, you're almost always better off with profile confidence intervals. The Wald confidence intervals assume that the (implicit) log-likelihood surface is locally quadratic, which is often a bad approximation. Except that they're more computationally intensive, profile confidence intervals are always (? I would welcome counterexamples ?) more accurate. The "improved" p values you get from the Wald estimates are likely overoptimistic.

Generate data:

dd <- data.frame(X=rep(c("yes","no"),c(22,363)),


m_glm <-glm(Y~X,family=binomial,data=dd)
m_fp <-logistf(Y~X,data=dd,pl=TRUE,firth=TRUE)
m_mp <- logistf(Y~X,data=dd,pl=TRUE,firth=FALSE)
m_fw <-logistf(Y~X,data=dd,pl=FALSE,firth=TRUE)
m_mw <-logistf(Y~X,data=dd,pl=FALSE,firth=FALSE)

Compare Wald (confint.default) with profile CIs for glm (in this case the profile intervals are actually narrower).

confint.default(m_glm)  ## {-2740, 2710}
confint(m_glm)          ## {NA, 118}

Comparing with the glm2 package (just to make sure that glm isn't doing something wonky).

## similar results to glm(...)
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I understood your answer. In my the profile CIs are on both side of zero even when a predictor is significant. why confint and confint.default give different results on glm()? they should be the same function! What you want to show me reporting the CIs for glm() $\endgroup$
    – Bakaburg
    Dec 29, 2014 at 0:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what's going on when firth=FALSE; I agree it seems strange. confint() calls MASS:::confint.glm(), which computes profile confidence intervals. I was just trying to demonstrate another difference between the profile and Wald intervals. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Dec 29, 2014 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ reading around is said that profile CIs are better. but they give extreme results, like NA or infinite, which are defenitely not good! More over, if confint() uses profile CIs, why using glm with confint and logistf with firt=F and pl=T don't give same results? Of note, I discovered that logistf can be used also with linear models (continue outcomes) again with different results. I'm discovering a world about CIs and the sentence "the more I know, the less I understand" it's getting terribly true. I wonder really how many people understand these oddities when performing science experiments. $\endgroup$
    – Bakaburg
    Dec 30, 2014 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ summing up: i'm totally lost $\endgroup$
    – Bakaburg
    Dec 30, 2014 at 19:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ the extreme results from profile CIs (at least -Inf/+Inf) are correct, though; they imply that one could (e.g. in the case of +Inf) increase the parameter arbitrarily far and still not get a log-likelihood that is significantly worse than the best fit. You may not like it, but it's actually correct. There are really two different questions here, which is making it a little bit hard to answer. (1) what is the difference between Wald and profile CIs, and which should I use? (2) What is logistf doing when firth=FALSE, and why is it not matching the results of glm in this case? $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Dec 30, 2014 at 19:05

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