## [4/17/2015 updated: A reader pointed out that my formulae for specificity and accuracy contained errors. It turns out that both measures were being calculated correctly, just a typing error on the blog. I’ve corrected them below.]

**TL;DR summary**

Evaluating a binary classifier based on an artificial balance of positive examples and negative examples (which is commonly done in this field) can cause underestimation of method accuracy but **vast** overestimation of the positive predictive value (PPV) of the method. Since PPV is likely the only metric that really matters to a particular kind of important end user, the biologist wanting to find a couple of novel positive examples in the lab based on your prediction, this is a potentially very big problem with reporting performance.

## The long version

Previously I wrote a post about the importance of having a naturally balanced set of positive and negative examples when evaluating the performance of a binary classifier produced by machine learning methods. I’ve continued to think about this problem and realized that I didn’t have a very good handle on what kinds of effects artificially balanced sets would have on performance. Though the metrics I’m using are very simple I felt that it would be worthwhile to demonstrate the effects so did a simple simulation.

- I produced random prediction sets with a set portion of positives predicted correctly (85%) and a set portion of negatives predicted correctly (95%).
- The ‘naturally’ occurring ratio of positive to negative examples could be varied but for the figures below I used 1:100.
- I varied the ratio of positive to negative examples used to estimate performance and
- Calculated several commonly used measures of performance:
**Accuracy**(TP~~+FP~~TN)/(TP+FP+TN+FN); that is, the percentage of positive or negative predictions that are correct relative to the total number of predictions)**Specificity**(TN/~~(TN+FN)~~(TN+FP); that is, the percentage of negative predictions that are correct relative to the total number of negative examples)**AUC**(area under the receiver operating characteristic curve; a summary metric that is commonly used in classification to evaluate performance)**Positive predictive value**(TP/(TP+FP); that is, out of all positive predictions what percentage are correct)**False discovery rate**(FDR; 1-PPV; percentage of positive predictions that are wrong)

- Repeated these calculations with 20 different random prediction sets
- Plotted the results as box plots, which summarize the mean (dark line in the middle), standard deviation (the box), and the lines (whiskers) showing 1.5 times the interquartile range from the box- dots above or below are outside this range.

The results are not surprising but do demonstrate the pitfalls of using artificially balanced data sets. Keep in mind that there are many publications that limit their training **and evaluation** datasets to a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative examples.

**Accuracy**

**Specificity**

**AUC**

**Positive predictive value (PPV)**

**False discovery rate (FDR)**

**Why is this a problem?**

The last two plots, PPV and FDR, are where the real trouble is. The problem is that the artificial splits **vastly** overestimate PPV and underestimate FDR (note that the Y axis scale on these plots runs from 0 to close to 1). Why is this important? This is important because, in general, PPV is what an end user is likely to be concerned about. I’m thinking of the end user that wants to use your great new method for predicting that proteins are members of some very important functional class. They will then apply your method to their own examples (say their newly sequenced bacteria) and rank the positive predictions. They could care less about the negative predictions because that’s not what they’re interested in. So they take the top few predictions to the lab (they can’t afford to do 100s, only the best few, say 5, predictions) and experimentally validate them.

If your method’s PPV is actually 95% it’s fairly likely that all 5 of their predictions will pan out (it’s NEVER really as likely as that due to all kinds of factors, but for sake of argument) making them very happy and allowing the poor grad student who’s project it is to actually graduate.

However, the actual PPV from the example above is about 5%. This means that the poor grad student who slaves for weeks over experiments to validate at least ONE of your stinking predictions will probably end up empty-handed for their efforts and will have to spend another 3 years struggling to get their project to the point of graduation.

Given a large enough ratio in the real dataset (e.g. protein-protein interactions where the number of positive examples is somewhere around 50-100k in human but the number of negatives is somewhere around 4.5x10e8, a ratio of ~1:10000) the real PPV can fall to essentially 0, whereas the artificially estimated PPV can stay very high.

So, don’t be that bioinformatician who publishes the paper with performance results based on a vastly artificial balance of positive versus negative examples that ruins some poor graduate student’s life down the road.

This is why I’m always surprised that precision recall curves are not presented more than ROC curves in biology. They are so much more informative for imbalanced classification problems.