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A universal information theoretic approach to the identification of stopwords


One of the most widely used approaches in natural language processing and information retrieval is the so-called bag-of-words model. A common component of such methods is the removal of uninformative words, commonly referred to as stopwords. Currently, most practitioners use manually curated stopword lists. This approach is problematic because it cannot be readily generalized across knowledge domains or languages. As a result of the difficulty in rigorously defining stopwords, there have been few systematic studies on the effect of stopword removal on algorithm performance, which is reflected in the ongoing debate on whether to keep or remove stopwords. Here we address this challenge by formulating an information theoretic framework that automatically identifies uninformative words in a corpus. We show that our framework not only outperforms other stopword heuristics, but also allows for a substantial reduction of document size in applications of topic modelling. Our findings can be readily generalized to other bag-of-words-type approaches beyond language such as in the statistical analysis of transcriptomics, audio or image corpora.

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Fig. 1: Using entropy as a universal measure to quantify the information content of a word.
Fig. 2: Identification of stopwords by thresholding of information content.
Fig. 3: Removal of information theoretic stopwords makes the topic model more accurate and stable.
Fig. 4: Universal improvement of topic model inference for different language corpora.
Fig. 5: Robustness of supervised classification accuracy with respect to removal of information theoretic stopwords.
Fig. 6: Application to data from scRNA-seq reveals ‘stopgenes’.

Data availability

The text data are available in the public repository

Code availability

The code for this Article, along with an accompanying computational environment, is available in the public repository and is executable online as a Code Ocean capsule. Code for the calculation of the information theoretic measure \(I\) and for the experiments with topic models can be found at


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L.A.N.A. acknowledges a John and Leslie McQuown Gift to NICO and support from the Department of Defense Army Research Office (grant number W911NF-14-1-0259). M.G. thanks T. Stoeger and Z. Ren for insightful discussion on scRNA-seq.

Author information




M.G. and L.A.N.A. conceptualized the study. M.G. and H.S. obtained all data and conducted all analysis. M.G. and L.A.N.A. wrote the first draft. M.G., H.S. and L.A.N.A. edited and revised the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Martin Gerlach or Luís A. Nunes Amaral.

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Gerlach, M., Shi, H. & Amaral, L.A.N. A universal information theoretic approach to the identification of stopwords. Nat Mach Intell 1, 606–612 (2019).

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