Target-decoy approach and false discovery rate: when things may go wrong

J Am Soc Mass Spectrom. 2011 Jul;22(7):1111-20. doi: 10.1007/s13361-011-0139-3. Epub 2011 May 5.


The target-decoy approach (TDA) has done the field of proteomics a great service by filling in the need to estimate the false discovery rates (FDR) of peptide identifications. While TDA is often viewed as a universal solution to the problem of FDR evaluation, we argue that the time has come to critically re-examine TDA and to acknowledge not only its merits but also its demerits. We demonstrate that some popular MS/MS search tools are not TDA-compliant and that it is easy to develop a non-TDA compliant tool that outperforms all TDA-compliant tools. Since the distinction between TDA-compliant and non-TDA compliant tools remains elusive, we are concerned about a possible proliferation of non-TDA-compliant tools in the future (developed with the best intentions). We are also concerned that estimation of the FDR by TDA awkwardly depends on a virtual coin toss and argue that it is important to take the coin toss factor out of our estimation of the FDR. Since computing FDR via TDA suffers from various restrictions, we argue that TDA is not needed when accurate p-values of individual Peptide-Spectrum Matches are available.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Databases, Protein
  • Humans
  • Peptides / analysis*
  • Peptides / chemistry*
  • Proteins / analysis
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteomics / methods*
  • Software
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry / methods*


  • Peptides
  • Proteins