Data Driven Estimation of Imputation Error-A Strategy for Imputation with a Reject Option

Nikolaj Bak, Lars K Hansen
PloS One 2016, 11 (10): e0164464
Missing data is a common problem in many research fields and is a challenge that always needs careful considerations. One approach is to impute the missing values, i.e., replace missing values with estimates. When imputation is applied, it is typically applied to all records with missing values indiscriminately. We note that the effects of imputation can be strongly dependent on what is missing. To help make decisions about which records should be imputed, we propose to use a machine learning approach to estimate the imputation error for each case with missing data. The method is thought to be a practical approach to help users using imputation after the informed choice to impute the missing data has been made. To do this all patterns of missing values are simulated in all complete cases, enabling calculation of the "true error" in each of these new cases. The error is then estimated for each case with missing values by weighing the "true errors" by similarity. The method can also be used to test the performance of different imputation methods. A universal numerical threshold of acceptable error cannot be set since this will differ according to the data, research question, and analysis method. The effect of threshold can be estimated using the complete cases. The user can set an a priori relevant threshold for what is acceptable or use cross validation with the final analysis to choose the threshold. The choice can be presented along with argumentation for the choice rather than holding to conventions that might not be warranted in the specific dataset.

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