[BioC] conceptual question about FDR, FDR adjusted p-value and q-value

Gordon K Smyth smyth at wehi.EDU.AU
Fri Dec 21 02:11:38 CET 2012

Dear Jack,

The thing to understand is that terms like FDR and q-value were defined in 
specific ways by their original inventors but are used in more generic 
ways by later researchers who adapt, modify or use the ideas.

The term "false discovery rate (FDR)" was created by Benjamini and 
Hochberg in their 1995 paper.  They gave a particular definition of what 
they meant by FDR.  Their procedure accepted or rejected hypotheses, but 
did not produce adjusted p-values.

Benjamini and Yekutieli presented another more conservative algorithm to 
control the FDR in a 2001 paper.  Same definition of FDR, but a different 

In 2002, I re-interpreted the Benjamini and Hochberg (BH) and Benjamini 
and Yekutieli (BY) procedures in terms of adjusted p-values.  I 
implemented the resulting algorithms in the function p.adjust() in the 
stats package, and used them in the limma package, and this lead to the 
concept of an FDR adjusted p-value.  The terminology used by the 
p.adjust() function and limma packages has lead people to refer to "BH 
adjusted p-values".

The adjusted p-value definition that you give is essentially the same as 
the BH adjusted p-value, except that you omitted the last step in the 
procedure.  Your definition as it stands is not an increasing function of 
the original p-values.

In 2002, John Storey created a new definition of "false discovery rate". 
Storey's definition is based on Benjamini and Hochberg's original idea, 
but is mathematically a bit more flexible.  John Storey also created the 
terminology "q-value" for a quantity estimates his definition of FDR.  He 
implemented q-value estimation procedures in an R package called qvalue.

So, strictly speaking, the q-value and the FDR adjusted p-value are 
similar but not quite the same.  However the terms q-value and FDR 
adjusted p-value are often used generically by the Bioconductor community 
to refer to any quantity that controls or estimates any definition of the 
FDR.  In this general sense the terms are synonyms.

The lesson to draw from this is that different methods and different 
packages are trying to do slighty different things and give slightly 
different results, and you should always cite the specific software and 
method that you have used.

Best wishes

> Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2012 10:22:23 -0500
> From: Jack Luo <jluo.rhelp at gmail.com>
> To: <bioconductor at stat.math.ethz.ch>
> Subject: [BioC] conceptual question about FDR, FDR adjusted p-value
> 	and q-value
> Hi,
> I am a bit confused about the concepts of the 3 things: FDR, FDR adjusted
> p-value and q-value, which I initially thought I was clear about.
> Are FDR adjusted p-value the same as q-value? (my understanding is that FDR
> adjusted p-value = original p-value * number of genes/rank of the gene, is
> that right?)
> When people say xxx genes are differentially expressed with an FDR cutoff
> of 0.05, does that mean xxx genes have an FDR adjusted p-value smaller than
> 0.05?
> Thanks,
> -Jack

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