Automatic biomedical named entity recognition (BioNER) is a key task in biomedical information extraction. For some time, state-of-the-art BioNER has been dominated by machine learning methods, particularly conditional random fields (CRFs), with a recent focus on deep learning. However, recent work has suggested that the high performance of CRFs for BioNER may not generalize to corpora other than the one it was trained on. In our analysis, we find that a popular deep learning-based approach to BioNER, known as bidirectional long short-term memory network-conditional random field (BiLSTM-CRF), is correspondingly poor at generalizing. To address this, we evaluate three modifications of BiLSTM-CRF for BioNER to improve generalization: improved regularization via variational dropout, transfer learning and multi-task learning.


We measure the effect that each strategy has when training/testing on the same corpus (‘in-corpus’ performance) and when training on one corpus and evaluating on another (‘out-of-corpus’ performance), our measure of the model’s ability to generalize. We found that variational dropout improves out-of-corpus performance by an average of 4.62%, transfer learning by 6.48% and multi-task learning by 8.42%. The maximal increase we identified combines multi-task learning and variational dropout, which boosts out-of-corpus performance by 10.75%. Furthermore, we make available a new open-source tool, called Saber that implements our best BioNER models.

Availability and implementation

Source code for our biomedical IE tool is available at Corpora and other resources used in this study are available at

Supplementary information

Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.

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