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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

A Bayesian method for comparing and combining binary classifiers in the absence of a gold standard

Jonathan M Keith*, Christian M Davey and Sarah E Boyd

Author Affiliations

School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

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BMC Bioinformatics 2012, 13:179  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-13-179

Published: 27 July 2012



Many problems in bioinformatics involve classification based on features such as sequence, structure or morphology. Given multiple classifiers, two crucial questions arise: how does their performance compare, and how can they best be combined to produce a better classifier? A classifier can be evaluated in terms of sensitivity and specificity using benchmark, or gold standard, data, that is, data for which the true classification is known. However, a gold standard is not always available. Here we demonstrate that a Bayesian model for comparing medical diagnostics without a gold standard can be successfully applied in the bioinformatics domain, to genomic scale data sets. We present a new implementation, which unlike previous implementations is applicable to any number of classifiers. We apply this model, for the first time, to the problem of finding the globally optimal logical combination of classifiers.


We compared three classifiers of protein subcellular localisation, and evaluated our estimates of sensitivity and specificity against estimates obtained using a gold standard. The method overestimated sensitivity and specificity with only a small discrepancy, and correctly ranked the classifiers. Diagnostic tests for swine flu were then compared on a small data set. Lastly, classifiers for a genome-wide association study of macular degeneration with 541094 SNPs were analysed. In all cases, run times were feasible, and results precise. The optimal logical combination of classifiers was also determined for all three data sets. Code and data are available from webcite.


The examples demonstrate the methods are suitable for both small and large data sets, applicable to the wide range of bioinformatics classification problems, and robust to dependence between classifiers. In all three test cases, the globally optimal logical combination of the classifiers was found to be their union, according to three out of four ranking criteria. We propose as a general rule of thumb that the union of classifiers will be close to optimal.

Binary classifier; Bayesian methods; Protein sub-cellular localisation; Diagnostic tests; Genome wide association studies.