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Peer Review, Part 1: Quilt Plots

What is peer review? How does it work? And is it really as flawed as people claim it is? In this little series, I will talk about all that, and then end up arguing that peer review does, in fact, work - at least in visualization. But first an example where it didn’t.

A paper made the rounds last week for its poor quality: Quilt Plots: A Simple Tool for the Visualisation of Large Epidemiological Data. It was peer-reviewed and accepted by an editor at PLOS ONE, which is an online science journal (covering all the sciences). PLOS ONE is an open-access online journal with the goal of publishing work faster and without trying to assess importance (which is difficult). That’s not a bad idea in principle, but this example shows that their rigorous peer review might need some work.

Quilt Plot

The paper simply presents a way to create a heatmap. It’s not just that the reviewers should be expected to know what a heatmap is, they should also see through the odd way the whole thing is argued: the heatmap function the authors were using in R had too many options, so they stripped out the dendrogram and clustering, and presented just the color-coded table as a new thing.

How anybody could think this was a valid contribution is beyond me. You can do this in Excel or Tableau with a few clicks, and it’s pretty easy even in R. What’s even more annoying is that the authors provide their implementation of their “technique” as R code – as screenshots inside a Word document.

This would be okay as a posting to an R mailing list perhaps, or as a short blog posting. And those are perfectly valid ways of publishing this sort of thing, without having to go through review. The point of peer review is to filter out the bad, nonsensical, and trivial stuff, so that you can expect to find good work when reading a journal or conference proceedings. It doesn’t always work, but it mostly does.

This is part of a five-part series on peer review in visualization. One posting a day will be posted throughout this week.

Posted by Robert Kosara on January 19, 2014. Filed under peer-review.