Create a publication-ready correlation matrix, with significance levels, in R

Create a publication-ready correlation matrix, with significance levels, in R

In most (observational) research papers you read, you will probably run into a correlation matrix. Often it looks something like this:


In Social Sciences, like Psychology, researchers like to denote the statistical significance levels of the correlation coefficients, often using asterisks (i.e., *). Then the table will look more like this:

Table 4 from Family moderators of relation between community ...

Regardless of my personal preferences and opinions, I had to make many of these tables for the scientific (non-)publications of my Ph.D..

I remember that, when I first started using R, I found it quite difficult to generate these correlation matrices automatically.

Yes, there is the cor function, but it does not include significance levels.

Then there the (in)famous Hmisc package, with its rcorr function. But this tool provides a whole new range of issues.

What’s this storage.mode, and what are we trying to coerce again?

Soon you figure out that Hmisc::rcorr only takes in matrices (thus with only numeric values). Hurray, now you can run a correlation analysis on your dataframe, you think…

Yet, the output is all but publication-ready!

You wanted one correlation matrix, but now you have two… Double the trouble?

To spare future scholars the struggle of the early day R programming, I would like to share my custom function correlation_matrix.

My correlation_matrix takes in a dataframe, selects only the numeric (and boolean/logical) columns, calculates the correlation coefficients and p-values, and outputs a fully formatted publication-ready correlation matrix!

You can specify many formatting options in correlation_matrix.

For instance, you can use only 2 decimals. You can focus on the lower triangle (as the lower and upper triangle values are identical). And you can drop the diagonal values:

Or maybe you are interested in a different type of correlation coefficients, and not so much in significance levels:

For other formatting options, do have a look at the source code below.

Now, to make matters even more easy, I wrote a second function (save_correlation_matrix) to directly save any created correlation matrices:

Once you open your new correlation matrix file in Excel, it is immediately ready to be copy-pasted into Word!

If you are looking for ways to visualize your correlations do have a look at the packages corrr and corrplot.

I hope my functions are of help to you!

Do reach out if you get to use them in any of your research papers!

I would be super interested and feel honored.


#' correlation_matrix
#' Creates a publication-ready / formatted correlation matrix, using `Hmisc::rcorr` in the backend.
#' @param df dataframe; containing numeric and/or logical columns to calculate correlations for
#' @param type character; specifies the type of correlations to compute; gets passed to `Hmisc::rcorr`; options are `"pearson"` or `"spearman"`; defaults to `"pearson"`
#' @param digits integer/double; number of decimals to show in the correlation matrix; gets passed to `formatC`; defaults to `3`
#' @param decimal.mark character; which decimal.mark to use; gets passed to `formatC`; defaults to `.`
#' @param use character; which part of the correlation matrix to display; options are `"all"`, `"upper"`, `"lower"`; defaults to `"all"`
#' @param show_significance boolean; whether to add `*` to represent the significance levels for the correlations; defaults to `TRUE`
#' @param replace_diagonal boolean; whether to replace the correlations on the diagonal; defaults to `FALSE`
#' @param replacement character; what to replace the diagonal and/or upper/lower triangles with; defaults to `""` (empty string)
#' @return a correlation matrix
#' @export
#' @examples
#' `correlation_matrix(iris)`
#' `correlation_matrix(mtcars)`
correlation_matrix <- function(df, 
                               type = "pearson",
                               digits = 3, 
                               decimal.mark = ".",
                               use = "all", 
                               show_significance = TRUE, 
                               replace_diagonal = FALSE, 
                               replacement = ""){
  # check arguments
    digits >= 0
    use %in% c("all", "upper", "lower")
  # we need the Hmisc package for this
  # retain only numeric and boolean columns
  isNumericOrBoolean = vapply(df, function(x) is.numeric(x) | is.logical(x), logical(1))
  if (sum(!isNumericOrBoolean) > 0) {
    cat('Dropping non-numeric/-boolean column(s):', paste(names(isNumericOrBoolean)[!isNumericOrBoolean], collapse = ', '), '\n\n')
  df = df[isNumericOrBoolean]
  # transform input data frame to matrix
  x <- as.matrix(df)
  # run correlation analysis using Hmisc package
  correlation_matrix <- Hmisc::rcorr(x, type = type)
  R <- correlation_matrix$r # Matrix of correlation coeficients
  p <- correlation_matrix$P # Matrix of p-value 
  # transform correlations to specific character format
  Rformatted = formatC(R, format = 'f', digits = digits, decimal.mark = decimal.mark)
  # if there are any negative numbers, we want to put a space before the positives to align all
  if (sum(! & R < 0) > 0) {
    Rformatted = ifelse(! & R > 0, paste0(" ", Rformatted), Rformatted)

  # add significance levels if desired
  if (show_significance) {
    # define notions for significance levels; spacing is important.
    stars <- ifelse(, "", ifelse(p < .001, "***", ifelse(p < .01, "**", ifelse(p < .05, "*", ""))))
    Rformatted = paste0(Rformatted, stars)
  # make all character strings equally long
  max_length = max(nchar(Rformatted))
  Rformatted = vapply(Rformatted, function(x) {
    current_length = nchar(x)
    difference = max_length - current_length
    return(paste0(x, paste(rep(" ", difference), collapse = ''), sep = ''))
  }, FUN.VALUE = character(1))
  # build a new matrix that includes the formatted correlations and their significance stars
  Rnew <- matrix(Rformatted, ncol = ncol(x))
  rownames(Rnew) <- colnames(Rnew) <- colnames(x)
  # replace undesired values
  if (use == 'upper') {
    Rnew[lower.tri(Rnew, diag = replace_diagonal)] <- replacement
  } else if (use == 'lower') {
    Rnew[upper.tri(Rnew, diag = replace_diagonal)] <- replacement
  } else if (replace_diagonal) {
    diag(Rnew) <- replacement


#' save_correlation_matrix
#' Creates and save to file a fully formatted correlation matrix, using `correlation_matrix` and `Hmisc::rcorr` in the backend
#' @param df dataframe; passed to `correlation_matrix`
#' @param filename either a character string naming a file or a connection open for writing. "" indicates output to the console; passed to `write.csv`
#' @param ... any other arguments passed to `correlation_matrix`
#' @return NULL
#' @examples
#' `save_correlation_matrix(df = iris, filename = 'iris-correlation-matrix.csv')`
#' `save_correlation_matrix(df = mtcars, filename = 'mtcars-correlation-matrix.csv', digits = 3, use = 'lower')`
save_correlation_matrix = function(df, filename, ...) {
  return(write.csv2(correlation_matrix(df, ...), file = filename))

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11 thoughts on “Create a publication-ready correlation matrix, with significance levels, in R

  1. Great, thank you! One question, can you use this package to calculate the correlation matrix split by groups? I have some experimental results with different treatments, and I am interested in the correlation matrix by treatment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gerardo. I am not currently in reach of a computer. Yet I think something like `lapply(split(df, group_var), correlation_matrix)` should work.
      Split first splits your df into a list with seperate dfs per group on the group_var, and then lapply applies the correlation_matrix function to each list element (split df), returning seperate correlation matrices in a list. Have a look at the split and lapply base function documentation for how they precisely work.


  2. Is there a problem with columns containing only one level or value such as `correlation_matrix(dplyr::mutate(mtcars, aa=0) %>%`?


    1. Hi Jimbou! I had accounted for error-handling in case of missing correlations (when there is no variation in one of the variables).

      I have changed the code and the function can now handle such cases. The respective correlation matrix column/row will contain NaNs. Moreover, I’ve improved the function slightly to make all correlation value strings equally long.

      I should really stop posting code on my website and open github repositories with change requests ; )

      Thanks for noticing this error though!


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