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This article is part of the supplement: ACM Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology and Biomedicine 2011

Open Access Proceedings

Win percentage: a novel measure for assessing the suitability of machine classifiers for biological problems

R Mitchell Parry1, John H Phan1 and May D Wang1234*

Author Affiliations

1 The Wallace H Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA

2 Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA

3 Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA

4 Parker H Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Biosciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2012, 13(Suppl 3):S7  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-13-S3-S7

Published: 21 March 2012



Selecting an appropriate classifier for a particular biological application poses a difficult problem for researchers and practitioners alike. In particular, choosing a classifier depends heavily on the features selected. For high-throughput biomedical datasets, feature selection is often a preprocessing step that gives an unfair advantage to the classifiers built with the same modeling assumptions. In this paper, we seek classifiers that are suitable to a particular problem independent of feature selection. We propose a novel measure, called "win percentage", for assessing the suitability of machine classifiers to a particular problem. We define win percentage as the probability a classifier will perform better than its peers on a finite random sample of feature sets, giving each classifier equal opportunity to find suitable features.


First, we illustrate the difficulty in evaluating classifiers after feature selection. We show that several classifiers can each perform statistically significantly better than their peers given the right feature set among the top 0.001% of all feature sets. We illustrate the utility of win percentage using synthetic data, and evaluate six classifiers in analyzing eight microarray datasets representing three diseases: breast cancer, multiple myeloma, and neuroblastoma. After initially using all Gaussian gene-pairs, we show that precise estimates of win percentage (within 1%) can be achieved using a smaller random sample of all feature pairs. We show that for these data no single classifier can be considered the best without knowing the feature set. Instead, win percentage captures the non-zero probability that each classifier will outperform its peers based on an empirical estimate of performance.


Fundamentally, we illustrate that the selection of the most suitable classifier (i.e., one that is more likely to perform better than its peers) not only depends on the dataset and application but also on the thoroughness of feature selection. In particular, win percentage provides a single measurement that could assist users in eliminating or selecting classifiers for their particular application.