Not So New?

A paper presenting a tool for visualization of large datasets has left several scientists wondering how such “quilt plots” justified journal publication.

By | January 20, 2014

PLOS ONE, WAND ET AL.New tools to visualize large datasets are usually welcomed by the scientific community. But a paper published in PLOS One last week (January 13), in which researchers from the University of New South Wales presented colorful “quilt plots” to display epidemiological data, has left several scientists scratching their heads. How, they’ve asked, are so-called quilt plots different from heat maps, which are commonly used to visualize similarly large datasets using color?

Although the paper’s authors acknowledge this that “‘quilt plots’ can be considered as a simple formulation of ‘heat maps,’” the journal’s editors clearly thought there were different enough to warrant publication of the “new” technique. Critics disagree.

“This is the type of paper that makes one question the quality of a journal,” the University of Newcastle’s Renato Vimieiro commented on Twitter.

“This does not represent an advance in either methodology or knowledge and as such, does not warrant publication in a scholarly journal,” bioinformatician Neil Saunders echoed at his blog. Lior Pachter, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkley, agreed. “The fact that a paper like this was published in a journal is preposterous,” he wrote at his blog.

But if another scientist found quilt plots easier to generate than heat maps, might the paper be worth it? “I understand though where the authors are coming from,” Georg Walther commented to Saunders. “[They are] thinking that ‘Hey, our code contributes something to the community let’s publish an article about it.’”.

The Scientist reached out to PLOS One, and will update this post to reflect any response.

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