Towards a characterization of apparent contradictions in the biomedical literature using context analysis

Graciela Rosemblat, Marcelo Fiszman, Dongwook Shin, Halil Kilicoglu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: With the substantial growth in the biomedical research literature, a larger number of claims are published daily, some of which seemingly disagree with or contradict prior claims on the same topics. Resolving such contradictions is critical to advancing our understanding of human disease and developing effective treatments. Automated text analysis techniques can facilitate such analysis by extracting claims from the literature, flagging those that are potentially contradictory, and identifying any study characteristics that may explain such contradictions. Methods: Using SemMedDB, our own PubMed-scale repository of semantic predications (subject-relation-object triples), we identified apparent contradictions in the biomedical research literature and developed a categorization of contextual characteristics that explain such contradictions. Clinically relevant semantic predications relating to 20 diseases and involving opposing predicate pairs (e.g., an intervention TREATS or CAUSES a disease) were retrieved from SemMedDB. After addressing inference, uncertainty, generic concepts, and NLP errors through automatic and manual filtering steps, a set of apparent contradictions were identified and characterized. Results: We retrieved 117,676 predication instances from 62,360 PubMed abstracts (Jan 1980-Dec 2016). From these instances, automatic filtering steps generated 2236 candidate contradictory pairs. Through manual analysis, we determined that 58 of these pairs (2.6%) were apparent contradictions. We identified five main categories of contextual characteristics that explain these contradictions: (a) internal to the patient, (b) external to the patient, (c) endogenous/exogenous, (d) known controversy, and (e) contradictions in literature. Categories (a) and (b) were subcategorized further (e.g., species, dosage) and accounted for the bulk of the contradictory information. Conclusions: Semantic predications, by accounting for lexical variability, and SemMedDB, owing to its literature scale, can support identification and elucidation of potentially contradictory claims across the biomedical domain. Further filtering and classification steps are needed to distinguish among them the true contradictory claims. The ability to detect contradictions automatically can facilitate important biomedical knowledge management tasks, such as tracking and verifying scientific claims, summarizing research on a given topic, identifying knowledge gaps, and assessing evidence for systematic reviews, with potential benefits to the scientific community. Future work will focus on automating these steps for fully automatic recognition of contradictions from the biomedical research literature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103275
JournalJournal of Biomedical Informatics
StatePublished - Oct 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomedical research literature
  • Contradictions
  • Natural language processing
  • Semantic relations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Computer Science Applications


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