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Machine learning and word sense disambiguation in the biomedical domain: design and evaluation issues

Xu, Hua; Markatou, Marianthi; Dimova, Rositsa; Liu, Hongfang; Friedman, Carol

Background: Word sense disambiguation (WSD) is critical in the biomedical domain for improving the precision of natural language processing (NLP), text mining, and information retrieval systems because ambiguous words negatively impact accurate access to literature containing biomolecular entities, such as genes, proteins, cells, diseases, and other important entities. Automated techniques have been developed that address the WSD problem for a number of text processing situations, but the problem is still a challenging one. Supervised WSD machine learning (ML) methods have been applied in the biomedical domain and have shown promising results, but the results typically incorporate a number of confounding factors, and it is problematic to truly understand the effectiveness and generalizability of the methods because these factors interact with each other and affect the final results. Thus, there is a need to explicitly address the factors and to systematically quantify their effects on performance.

Results: Experiments were designed to measure the effect of "sample size" (i.e. size of the datasets), "sense distribution" (i.e. the distribution of the different meanings of the ambiguous word) and "degree of difficulty" (i.e. the measure of the distances between the meanings of the senses of an ambiguous word) on the performance of WSD classifiers. Support Vector Machine (SVM) classifiers were applied to an automatically generated data set containing four ambiguous biomedical abbreviations: BPD, BSA, PCA, and RSV, which were chosen because of varying degrees of differences in their respective senses. Results showed that: 1) increasing the sample size generally reduced the error rate, but this was limited mainly to well-separated senses (i.e. cases where the distances between the senses were large); in difficult cases an unusually large increase in sample size was needed to increase performance slightly, which was impractical, 2) the sense distribution did not have an effect on performance when the senses were separable, 3) when there was a majority sense of over 90%, the WSD classifier was not better than use of the simple majority sense, 4) error rates were proportional to the similarity of senses, and 5) there was no statistical difference between results when using a 5-fold or 10-fold cross-validation method. Other issues that impact performance are also enumerated.

Conclusion: Several different independent aspects affect performance when using ML techniques for WSD. We found that combining them into one single result obscures understanding of the underlying methods. Although we studied only four abbreviations, we utilized a well-established statistical method that guarantees the results are likely to be generalizable for abbreviations with similar characteristics. The results of our experiments show that in order to understand the performance of these ML methods it is critical that papers report on the baseline performance, the distribution and sample size of the senses in the datasets, and the standard deviation or confidence intervals. In addition, papers should also characterize the difficulty of the WSD task, the WSD situations addressed and not addressed, as well as the ML methods and features used. This should lead to an improved understanding of the generalizablility and the limitations of the methodology.


Also Published In

BMC Bioinformatics

More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Informatics
Published Here
September 9, 2014