Automated confidence ranked classification of randomized controlled trial articles: An aid to evidence-based medicine

Aaron M. Cohen, Neil R. Smalheiser, Marian S. McDonagh, Clement Yu, Clive E. Adams, John M. Davis, Philip S. Yu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Objective: For many literature review tasks, including systematic review (SR) and other aspects of evidence-based medicine, it is important to know whether an article describes a randomized controlled trial (RCT). Current manual annotation is not complete or flexible enough for the SR process. In this work, highly accurate machine learning predictive models were built that include confidence predictions of whether an article is an RCT. Materials and Methods: The LibSVM classifier was used with forward selection of potential feature sets on a large human-related subset of MEDLINE to create a classification model requiring only the citation, abstract, and MeSH terms for each article. Results: The model achieved an area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.973 and mean squared error of 0.013 on the held out year 2011 data. Accurate confidence estimates were confirmed on a manually reviewed set of test articles. A second model not requiring MeSH terms was also created, and performs almost as well. Discussion: Both models accurately rank and predict article RCT confidence. Using the model and the manually reviewed samples, it is estimated that about 8000 (3%) additional RCTs can be identified in MEDLINE, and that 5% of articles tagged as RCTs in Medline may not be identified. Conclusion: Retagging human-related studies with a continuously valued RCT confidence is potentially more useful for article ranking and review than a simple yes/no prediction. The automated RCT tagging tool should offer significant savings of time and effort during the process of writing SRs, and is a key component of a multistep text mining pipeline that we are building to streamline SR workflow. In addition, the model may be useful for identifying errors in MEDLINE publication types. The RCT confidence predictions described here have been made available to users as a web service with a user query form front end at:

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)707-717
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of the American Medical Informatics Association
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2015


  • Evidence-based medicine
  • Information retrieval
  • Natural language processing
  • Randomized controlled trials as topic
  • Support vector machines
  • Systematic reviews

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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