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Hierarchical confounder discovery in the experiment-machine learning cycle

Rogozhnikov A, Ramkumar P, Bedi R, Kato S, Escola GS

Cell Patterns



The promise of using machine learning (ML) to extract insights from high-dimensional data is tempered by the frequent presence of confounding variables. For example, models attempting to identify biomarkers of disease can be severely biased by disease-irrelevant features, such as the physical site where an experiment is performed. While we have many tools to grapple with known confounders, we lack a general method to identify which of a set of potential confounders warrant debiasing. Here, we present a simple non-parametric statistical method called the rank-to-group (RTG) score, which identifies hierarchical confounder effects in raw data and ML-derived data embeddings. We show that RTG scoring identifies previously unreported effects of experimental design in a public dataset and uncovers cross-model correlated variability in a multi-phenotypic biological dataset. This approach should be of general use in experiment-analysis cycles and to ensure confounder robustness in ML models.

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