Research on analyzing microarray data has focused on the problem of identifying differentially expressed genes to the neglect of the problem of how to integrate evidence that a gene is differentially expressed with information on the extent of its differential expression. Consequently, researchers currently prioritize genes for further study either on the basis of volcano plots or, more commonly, according to simple estimates of the fold change after filtering the genes with an arbitrary statistical significance threshold. While the subjective and informal nature of the former practice precludes quantification of its reliability, the latter practice is equivalent to using a hard-threshold estimator of the expression ratio that is not known to perform well in terms of mean-squared error, the sum of estimator variance and squared estimator bias. On the basis of two distinct simulation studies and data from different microarray studies, we systematically compared the performance of several estimators representing both current practice and shrinkage. We find that the threshold-based estimators usually perform worse than the maximum-likelihood estimator (MLE) and they often perform far worse as quantified by estimated mean-squared risk. By contrast, the shrinkage estimators tend to perform as well as or better than the MLE and never much worse than the MLE, as expected from what is known about shrinkage. However, a Bayesian measure of performance based on the prior information that few genes are differentially expressed indicates that hard-threshold estimators perform about as well as the local false discovery rate (FDR), the best of the shrinkage estimators studied. Based on the ability of the latter to leverage information across genes, we conclude that the use of the local-FDR estimator of the fold change instead of informal or threshold-based combinations of statistical tests and non-shrinkage estimators can be expected to substantially improve the reliability of gene prioritization at very little risk of doing so less reliably.


Microarrays | Numerical Analysis and Computation | Statistical Methodology | Statistical Models | Statistical Theory