Partitioning variation in multilevel models for count data

George Leckie, William Browne, Harvey Goldstein, Juan Merlo, Peter Austin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)
227 Downloads (Pure)


A first step when fitting multilevel models to continuous responses is to explore the degree of clustering in the data. Researchers fit variance-component models and then report the proportion of variation in the response that is due to systematic differences between clusters. Equally they report the response correlation between units within a cluster. These statistics are popularly referred to as variance partition coefficients (VPCs) and intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCs). When fitting multilevel models to categorical (binary, ordinal, or nominal) and count responses, these statistics prove more challenging to calculate. For categorical response models, researchers appeal to their latent response formulations and report VPCs/ICCs in terms of latent continuous responses envisaged to underly the observed categorical responses. For standard count response models, however, there are no corresponding latent response formulations. More generally, there is a paucity of guidance on how to partition the variation. As a result, applied researchers are likely to avoid or inadequately report and discuss the substantive importance of clustering and cluster effects in their studies. A recent article drew attention to a little-known exact algebraic expression for the VPC/ICC for the special case of the two-level randomintercept Poisson model. In this article, we make a substantial new contribution. First, we derive exact VPC/ICC expressions for more flexible negative binomial models that allows for overdispersion, a phenomenon which often occurs in practice. Then we derive exact VPC/ICC expressions for three-level and random-coefficient extensions to these models. We illustrate our work with an application to student absenteeism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)787–801
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological Methods
Issue number6
Early online date1 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Multilevel Modelling


  • multilevel model
  • count data
  • variance partition coefficient
  • intraclass correlation coefficient
  • Poisson model
  • negative binomial model


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