Annotation of phenotypes using ontologies: a gold standard for the training and evaluation of natural language processing systems

Wasila Dahdul, Prashanti Manda, Hong Cui, James P. Balhoff, T. Alexander Dececchi, Nizar Ibrahim, Hilmar Lapp, Todd Vision, Paula M. Mabee

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    Natural language descriptions of organismal phenotypes, a principal object of study in biology, are abundant in the biological literature. Expressing these phenotypes as logical statements using ontologies would enable large-scale analysis on phenotypic information from diverse systems. However, considerable human effort is required to make these phenotype descriptions amenable to machine reasoning. Natural language processing tools have been developed to facilitate this task, and the training and evaluation of these tools depend on the availability of high quality, manually annotated gold standard data sets. We describe the development of an expert-curated gold standard data set of annotated phenotypes for evolutionary biology. The gold standard was developed for the curation of complex comparative phenotypes for the Phenoscape project. It was created by consensus among three curators and consists of entity-quality expressions of varying complexity. We use the gold standard to evaluate annotations created by human curators and those generated by the Semantic CharaParser tool. Using four annotation accuracy metrics that can account for any level of relationship between terms from two phenotype annotations, we found that machine-human consistency, or similarity, was significantly lower than inter-curator (human-human) consistency. Surprisingly, allowing curatorsaccess to external information did not significantly increase the similarity of their annotations to the gold standard or have a significant effect on inter-curator consistency. We found that the similarity of machine annotations to the gold standard increased after new relevant ontology terms had been added. Evaluation by the original authors of the character descriptions indicated that the gold standard annotations came closer to representing their intended meaning than did either the curator or machine annotations. These findings point toward ways to better design software to augment human curators and the use of the gold standard corpus will allow training and assessment of new tools to improve phenotype annotation accuracy at scale.

    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages17
    JournalDatabase: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation
    Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2018


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