Open Access Research article

Optimally splitting cases for training and testing high dimensional classifiers

Kevin K Dobbin1* and Richard M Simon2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, College of Public Health, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA

2 Biometric Research Branch, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Rockville, MD, USA

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BMC Medical Genomics 2011, 4:31  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-4-31

Published: 8 April 2011



We consider the problem of designing a study to develop a predictive classifier from high dimensional data. A common study design is to split the sample into a training set and an independent test set, where the former is used to develop the classifier and the latter to evaluate its performance. In this paper we address the question of what proportion of the samples should be devoted to the training set. How does this proportion impact the mean squared error (MSE) of the prediction accuracy estimate?


We develop a non-parametric algorithm for determining an optimal splitting proportion that can be applied with a specific dataset and classifier algorithm. We also perform a broad simulation study for the purpose of better understanding the factors that determine the best split proportions and to evaluate commonly used splitting strategies (1/2 training or 2/3 training) under a wide variety of conditions. These methods are based on a decomposition of the MSE into three intuitive component parts.


By applying these approaches to a number of synthetic and real microarray datasets we show that for linear classifiers the optimal proportion depends on the overall number of samples available and the degree of differential expression between the classes. The optimal proportion was found to depend on the full dataset size (n) and classification accuracy - with higher accuracy and smaller n resulting in more assigned to the training set. The commonly used strategy of allocating 2/3rd of cases for training was close to optimal for reasonable sized datasets (n ≥ 100) with strong signals (i.e. 85% or greater full dataset accuracy). In general, we recommend use of our nonparametric resampling approach for determing the optimal split. This approach can be applied to any dataset, using any predictor development method, to determine the best split.