Less annotating, more classifying: Addressing the data scarcity issue of supervised machine learning with deep transfer learning and BERT-NLI

Moritz Laurer, Wouter van Atteveldt, Andreu Casas Salleras, Kasper Welbers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Supervised machine learning is an increasingly popular tool for analyzing large political text corpora. The main disadvantage of supervised machine learning is the need for thousands of manually annotated training data points. This issue is particularly important in the social sciences where most new research questions require new training data for a new task tailored to the specific research question. This paper analyses how deep transfer learning can help address this challenge by accumulating “prior knowledge” in language models. Models like BERT can learn statistical language patterns through pre-training (“language knowledge”), and reliance on task-specific data can be reduced by training on universal tasks like natural language inference (NLI; “task knowledge”). We demonstrate the benefits of transfer learning on a wide range of eight tasks. Across these eight tasks, our BERT-NLI model fine-tuned on 100 to 2,500 texts performs on average 10.7 to 18.3 percentage points better than classical models without transfer learning. Our study indicates that BERT-NLI fine-tuned on 500 texts achieves similar performance as classical models trained on around 5,000 texts. Moreover, we show that transfer learning works particularly well on imbalanced data. We conclude by discussing limitations of transfer learning and by outlining new opportunities for political science research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-100
JournalPolitical Analysis
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • machine learning
  • computational methods
  • text as data
  • transfer learning
  • artificial intelligence

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