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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A comparison and user-based evaluation of models of textual information structure in the context of cancer risk assessment

Yufan Guo1, Anna Korhonen1*, Maria Liakata3, Ilona Silins2, Johan Hogberg2 and Ulla Stenius2

Author Affiliations

1 Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, 15 JJ Thomson Avenue, Cambridge CB3 0FD, UK

2 Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, SE-171 77, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Department of Computer Science, Aberystwyth University, SY23 3DB, UK

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BMC Bioinformatics 2011, 12:69  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-12-69

Published: 8 March 2011



Many practical tasks in biomedicine require accessing specific types of information in scientific literature; e.g. information about the results or conclusions of the study in question. Several schemes have been developed to characterize such information in scientific journal articles. For example, a simple section-based scheme assigns individual sentences in abstracts under sections such as Objective, Methods, Results and Conclusions. Some schemes of textual information structure have proved useful for biomedical text mining (BIO-TM) tasks (e.g. automatic summarization). However, user-centered evaluation in the context of real-life tasks has been lacking.


We take three schemes of different type and granularity - those based on section names, Argumentative Zones (AZ) and Core Scientific Concepts (CoreSC) - and evaluate their usefulness for a real-life task which focuses on biomedical abstracts: Cancer Risk Assessment (CRA). We annotate a corpus of CRA abstracts according to each scheme, develop classifiers for automatic identification of the schemes in abstracts, and evaluate both the manual and automatic classifications directly as well as in the context of CRA.


Our results show that for each scheme, the majority of categories appear in abstracts, although two of the schemes (AZ and CoreSC) were developed originally for full journal articles. All the schemes can be identified in abstracts relatively reliably using machine learning. Moreover, when cancer risk assessors are presented with scheme annotated abstracts, they find relevant information significantly faster than when presented with unannotated abstracts, even when the annotations are produced using an automatic classifier. Interestingly, in this user-based evaluation the coarse-grained scheme based on section names proved nearly as useful for CRA as the finest-grained CoreSC scheme.


We have shown that existing schemes aimed at capturing information structure of scientific documents can be applied to biomedical abstracts and can be identified in them automatically with an accuracy which is high enough to benefit a real-life task in biomedicine.