Why you should share Data Nudes instead of just Shitty Tables

This post summarises what I wanted to say with a recent paper published in Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine, which includes an RMarkdown website supplement with code. Related slideshow and a video walkthrough is available here. Note: If it’s not obvious, These are my opinions as the first author, and may or may not be shared with collaborators who are nice people and surely wouldn’t use such foul language in public.

Some Problems in Summarising and Presenting Data

Many research reports include lots of variables, presented in tables comparing two or more groups, say an intervention and a control, or males and females. Readers often look at the means and standard deviations, looking for statistically significant differences between the two. What’s the problem?

1. It’s often not clear what significance even means, or whether some correction for multiple testing has been applied.

First of all, following the logic of Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing, to keep error rate under the alpha level, one would have to correct for multiple testing, and it is unclear how many tests one should correct for when hypotheses are not pre-specified. Ignoring this – especially, where it is unclear how to heed the recommendation to justify one’s alpha level – error rates can become surprisingly high, much more than the conventionally assumed 5%.

2. In the absence of randomisation, increased sample size leads to detecting more and more tiny differences.

When there has not been randomisation (as in the case of genders or baseline cohort descriptions), the null hypothesis of zero difference is never true, and its rejection only depends on statistical power. We are pretty much never interested in whether the populations differ by any arbitrarily small amount on any of the presented variables. What usually matters, is whether this difference is large enough to make a difference, that is, how big is the effect size. Two caveats follow: Firstly, in behavioural field trials, your participants are rarely independent from each other, but come clustered in e.g. classrooms (students), hospitals (patients) or offices (9-to-5 mental patients). Secondly, you almost always need to randomise clusters instead of individuals (here‘s why), which gives statistical power a huge ass-whooping.

Not accounting for the multilevel structure of the data when calculating effect sizes inflates the standard errors, possibly even making zero effects appear as medium-sized ones. But it is not a trivial task to derive trustworthy effect sizes for nested data (Lai & Kwok 2016). Although some solutions exist, they have not yet been empirically validated for finite populations in the second or third levels, nor is there currently a straightforward software implementation available – to my knowledge, that is. Therefore, a sensible option may be to present the means with their corresponding confidence intervals, encouraging the readers to refrain from merely considering non-overlapping intervals between groups as dichotomous hypothesis tests. In Shitty Table 1 you can see how this is done. That seem clear to you? Don’t worry, there are alternatives!

shitty table 1
Shitty Table 1. Means and confidence intervals for lots of things. Click to enlarge. Source.

3. The shape of the distribution may matter much, much more than simple arithmetic mean.

Difference between two means is fun and neat, but only informative for approximately normal or symmetric distributions, which are not the norm in social and life sciences. See reading list in the end. But hey, surely everyone reports things like skewness and kurtosis? [Of course they don’t, and even if they did, a minority of social scientists could actually interpret the numbers.] Look at Shitty Table 2 to see for yourself, whether you consider this a good way to convey information.

shitty table 2
Shitty Table 2. Means, standard deviations and some distributional properties of a single variable in different educational tracks the participants were nested in. Nur = Practical nurse, HRC = Hotel, restaurant and catering studies, BA = Business and administration, IT = Business information technology. Click to enlarge. Source.

An aside as regards the means: Few individual participants are described by the group-level summary statistics. In fact, using Daniels’ definition of an ‘approximately average individual’ as falling in the middle 30% of the range of values, only 1.50% of participants can be considered ‘average’ on all of the primary outcome measures (see supplementary website, section https://git.io/fpOy1). Also see this and this blog post, as well as the papers listed in the end.

Data Wants to be Seen Naked

star trek android GIF

In our paper, we present some ways behaviour change researchers could visualise their data, discuss some limitations and provide links to R code. Many, many other dedicated sources do this better, so feel free to check out this or this, for example. A principle I particularly like is to, whenever possible, include the raw data in the visualisation. This is because in abstractions, I personally have a hard time keeping in mind that I’m dealing with individuals operating in the world (complex dynamic systems in complex dynamic systems), and the raw data tends to ground me to some reality.

pretty picture 1
Pretty Picture 1. Visualising the information in Shitty Table 1 with raw data. Click to enlarge.

Data-visualisation and data exploration techniques (e.g. network analysis) can help reveal the dynamics involved in complex multi-causal systems – a challenging task with Shitty Tables. Data visualisations are crucial supplements to large numerical tables of descriptive statistics. With visualisations, researchers can communicate large amounts of information – including the associated uncertainty – in an accessible format, without requiring extensive mathematical expertise from the reader. This is important for researchers who intend to build on previous results, and in the paper we argue that such practices may also reduce problems that have led to the recent loss of confidence in the reproducibility and replicability of research findings in social and life sciences. Fully open data sharing would be ideal, but this is not always possible due to privacy concerns and, at the time of writing, remains a lamentably rare practice. In addition, open data does not necessarily accommodate stakeholders with low technical expertise in data analysis and visualisation, such as clinicians, patients and policy makers.

The benefits of presenting complex data visually should encourage researchers to publish extensive analyses and descriptions as website supplements, which would increase the speed and quality of scientific communication, as well as help to address the crisis of reduced confidence in research findings.

pretty picture 2
Pretty Picture 2. Visualising the information in Shitty Table 2. Shows hours of accelerometer-measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for different educational tracks. Midpoints of diamonds indicate means, endpoints 95% credible intervals. Individual observations are presented under the density curves, with random scatter on the y-axis to ease inspection. Nur = Practical nurse, HRC = Hotel, restaurant and catering, BA = Business and administration, IT = Information and communications technology.

In Pretty Picture 2, looking closely you can observe that boys did more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (x-axis is average daily hours) in every educational track. In spite of this, girls appeared more active when combining the educational tracks (shown as rows in the figure), because there is much more people in the practical nurse track, ,as well as those people being mostly girls. This is also known as the Simpson’s paradox, and is best investigated by visualising data.

pretty picture 3.PNG
Pretty Picture 3. See paper for elaboration.

Conventional approaches would have e.g. left the reader with an impression that the means of the multimodal or skewed variables (see Pretty Picture 1) are interpretable as central tendencies, and that the sample is homogenous (see Pretty Picture 2). Transparent and accessible sharing of data characteristics, analyses and analytical choices is imperative for increasing confidence in research findings; if nothing else, the elaborate supplements can act as a platform to present robustness tests and assumption explorations in.

pretty picture 4
Pretty Picture 4. See paper for elaboration.

Reading list

The paper described in this post:

  • Heino, M. T. J., Knittle, K., Fried, E., Sund, R., Haukkala, A., Borodulin, K., … Hankonen, N. (2019). Visualisation and network analysis of physical activity and its determinants: Demonstrating opportunities in analysing baseline associations in the let’s move it trial. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 7(1), 269–289. https://doi.org/10.1080/21642850.2019.1646136
  • Supplementary website: Link

On data visualisation:

  • Tay, L.Parrigon, S.Huang, Q., & LeBreton, J. M. (2016). Graphical descriptives a way to improve data transparency and methodological rigor in psychologyPerspectives on Psychological Science11(5), 692701

On hypothesis testing for non-prespecified comparisons:

  • de Groot AD. The meaning of “significance” for different types of research [translated and annotated by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, Denny Borsboom, Josine Verhagen, Rogier Kievit, Marjan Bakker, Angelique Cramer, Dora Matzke, Don Mellenbergh, and Han L. J. van der Maas]. Acta Psychologica. 2014;148:188–94.
  • Nosek BA, Ebersole CR, DeHaven AC, Mellor DT. The preregistration revolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;201708274.

On effect sizes for cluster randomised situations:

  • Lai MHC, Kwok O-m. Estimating Standardized Effect Sizes for Two- and Three-Level Partially Nested Data. Multivariate Behavioral Research. 2016;51:740–56.
  • Lai MHC, Kwok O-m, Hsiao Y-Y, Cao Q. Finite population correction for two-level hierarchical linear models. Psychological methods. 2018;23:94.

On distributional shapes:

  • Choi, S. W. (2016). Life is lognormal! What to do when your data does not follow a normal distribution. Anaesthesia71(11), 1363-1366.
  • Saxon, E. (2015). Beyond bar chartsBMC Biology13(1), 60. doi: 10.1186/s12915-015-0169-6
  • Taleb, N. N. (2007). Black swans and the domains of statistics. The American Statistician61(3), 198-200.
  • van Rooij, M. M., Nash, B., Rajaraman, S., & Holden, J. G. (2013). A fractal approach to dynamic inference and distribution analysis. Frontiers in physiology, 4, 1.
  • Weissgerber, T. L.Garovic, V. D.Savic, M.Winham, S. J., & Milic, N. M. (2016). From static to interactive: Transforming data visualization to improve transparencyPLOS Biology14(6), e1002484. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002484
  • Weissgerber, T. L.Milic, N. M.Winham, S. J., & Garovic, V. D.(2015). Beyond bar and line graphs: time for a new data presentation paradigmPLOS Biology13(4), e1002128. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002128

On averages:

  • Daniels, G. S. (1952). The“average man”?Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OHAir Force Aerospace Medical Research Lab.
  • Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How to succeed in a world that values sameness. Penguin UK.
  • Rousselet, G. A., Pernet, C. R., & Wilcox, R. R. (2017). Beyond differences in means: Robust graphical methods to compare two groups in neuroscienceEuropean Journal of Neuroscience46(2), 17381748. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13610
  • Trafimow, D., Wang, T., & Wang, C. (2018). Means and standard deviations, or locations and scales? That is the question!New Ideas in Psychology503437. doi: 10.1016/j.newideapsych.2018.03.001

Correlation pitfalls – Happier times with mutual information?

I’ve become increasingly anxious about properties of correlation I never knew existed. I collect resources and stuff on the topic in this post, so that have everything in one place. Some resources for beginners in the end of the post.

Correlation isn’t causation, and causation doesn’t require correlation. Ok. But have you heard that correlation is not correlation? In other words, things can be dependent without being correlated, and independent though correlated. Ain’t that fun. As Shay Allen Hill describes visually in his excellent, short blog (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED):

[C]ovariance doesn’t actually measure “Does y increase when x increases?” it only measures “Is y above average when x is above average (and by how much)?” And when covariance is broken [i.e. mean doesn’t coincide with median], our correlation function is broken.

So there may well be situations, where only 20% of people in the sample show dependence between two variables, and this shows up as a correlation of 37% at minimum. Or when a correlation of 0.5 carries ~4.5 times (and a correlation of 0.75 carries ~12.8 times) more information than a correlation of 0.25. As you may know, in psychology, it’s quite rare to see a correlation of 0.5. But even a correlation of 0.5 only gives 13% more information than random. This prompted the following conversation:

How can we interpret a result without in-depth knowledge of the field as well as the data in question? A partial remedy apparently is using mutual information instead (see this paper draft for more information). I know nothing about it, so like always, I just started playing around with things I don’t understand. Here’s what came out:


The first four panels are the Anscombe’s Quartet. Fifth illustrates Taleb’s point about intelligence. Data for the last two panels are from this project. First four and last two panels have the same mean and standard deviation. Code for creating the pic is here.

MIC and BCMI were new to me, but I thought they were easy to implement, which doesn’t of course mean they make sense. But see how they catch the dinosaur?

  • MIC is the Maximal Information Coefficient, from maximal information-based nonparametric exploration (documentation)
  • BCMI stands for Jackknife Bias Corrected MI estimates (documentation)
  • DCOR is distance correlation (see comments)

I’d be happy to hear thoughts and caveats regarding the use of entropy-based dependency measures in general, and these in particular, from people who actually know these methods. Here’s a related Twitter thread, or just email me!

ps. If this is your first brush with uncertainties related to correlations, and/or have little or no statistics background, you may not know how correlation can vary spectacularly in small samples. Taleb’s stuff (mini-moocs [1, 2]) can sometimes be difficult to grasp without math background, so perhaps get started with this visualisation, or these Excel sheets. A while ago I animated some elementary simulations of p-value distributions for statistical significance of correlations; selective reporting makes things a lot worse than what’s depicted there. If you’re a psychology student, also be sure to check out the p-hacker app. If you haven’t thought about distributions much lately, check this out for a fun read by a math student.

⊂This post has been a formal sacrifice to Rexthor.⊃

Modern tools to enhance reproducibility and comprehension of research findings (VIDEO WALKTHROUGH 14min)

presen eka slide

These are the slides of my presentation at the annual conference of the European Health Psychology Society. It’s about presenting data visually, and taking publishing culture from the journals to our own hands. I hint to a utopia, where the journal publication is a side product of a comprehensively reported data set. 

Please find a 14min video walkthrough of the slides (which can be found here) below. The site presented in the slides is here, and the tutorial by the most awesome Lisa DeBruine is here!


After the talk, I saw what was probably the best tweet about a presentation of mine ever. For a fleeting moment, I was happy to exist:

ehps cap

Big thanks to everyone involved, especially Gjalt-Jorn Peters for helpful suggestions on code and the plots. For the diamond plots, check out diamondplots.com.

Authors of the conference abstract:

Matti Heino; Reijo Sund; Ari Haukkala; Keegan Knittle; Katja Borodulin; Antti Uutela; Vera Araújo-Soares, Falko Sniehotta, Tommi Vasankari; Nelli Hankonen


Background: Comprehensive reporting of results has traditionally been constrained by limited reporting space. In spite of calls for increased transparency, researchers have had to choose carefully what to report, and what to leave out; choices made based on subjective evaluations of importance. Open data remedies the situation, but privacy concerns and tradition hinder rapid progress. We present novel possibilities for comprehensive representation of data, making use of recent software developments.

Methods: We illustrate the opportunities using the Let’s Move It trial baseline data (n=1084). Descriptive statistics and group comparison results on psychosocial correlates of physical activity (PA) and accelerometry-assessed PA were reported in an easily accessible html-supplement, directly created from a combination of analysis code and data using existing tools within R.

Findings: Visualisations (e.g. network graphs, combined ridge and diamond plots) enabled presenting large amounts of information in an intelligible format. This bypasses the need to create narrative explanations for all data, or compress nuanced information into simple summary statistics. Providing all analysis code in a readily accessible format further contributed to transparency.

Discussion: We demonstrate how researchers can make their extensive analyses and descriptions openly available as website supplements, preferably with abundant visualisation to avoid overwhelming the reader with e.g. large numeric tables. Uptake of such practice could lead to a parallel form of literature, where highly technical and traditionally narrated documents coexist. While we may have to wait for fully open and documented data, comprehensive reporting of results is available to us now.



Visualising ordinal data with Flaming Pillars of Hell

I recently had a great experience with a StackOverflow question, when I was thinking about how to visualise ordinal data. This post shows an option for how to do that. Code for the plots is in the end of this post.

Update: here’s an FB discussion, which mentions e.g. a good idea of making stacked % graphs (though I like to see the individuals, so they won’t sneak up behind me) and using the package TramineR to visualise and analyse change.

Update 2: Although they have other names too, I’m going to call these things flamethrower plots. Just because it reflects the fact, that even though you have the opportunity to do it, it may not always be the best idea to apply them.

Say you have scores on some likert-type scale questionnaire items, like motivation, in two time points, and would like to visualise them. You’re especially interested in whether you can see detrimental effects, e.g. due to an intervention. One option would be to make a plot like this: each line in the plot below is one person, and the lighter lines indicate bigger increases in motivation scores, whereas the darker lines indicate iatrogenic development. The data is simulated so, that the highest increases take place in the item in the leftmost plot, the middle is randomness and the right one shows iatrogenics.

I have two questions:

  1. Do these plots have a name, and if not, what should we call them?
  2. How would you go about superimposing model-implied-changes, i.e. lines showing that when someone starts off at, for example, a score of four, where are they likely to end up in T2?


flaming pillars

The code below first simulates 500 participants for two time points, then draws plot. If you want to use it on your own data, transform the variables in the form scaleName_itemNumber_timePoint (e.g. “motivation_02_T1”).

<br /># Simulate data:
data <- data.frame(id = 1:500,
Intrinsic_01_T1 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE),
Intrinsic_02_T1 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE),
Intrinsic_03_T1 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE),
Intrinsic_01_T2 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE, prob = c(0.1, 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, 0.3)),
Intrinsic_02_T2 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE),
Intrinsic_03_T2 = sample(1:5, 500, replace = TRUE, prob = c(0.3, 0.3, 0.2, 0.1, 0.1)))

pd <- position_dodge(0.4) # X-axis jitter to make points more readable

# Draw plot:

data %>%
tidyr::gather(variable, value, -id) %>%
tidyr::separate(variable, c("item", "time"), sep = "_T") %>%
dplyr::mutate(value = jitter(value, amount = 0.1)) %>% # Y-axis jitter to make points more readable
group_by(id, item) %>%
mutate(slope = (value[time == 2] - value[time == 1]) / (2 - 1)) %>%
ggplot(aes(x = time, y = value, group = id)) +
geom_point(size = 1, alpha = .2, position = pd) +
geom_line(alpha = .2, position = pd, aes(color = slope), size = 1.5) +
scale_color_viridis_c(option = "inferno")+
ggtitle('Changes in indicators of motivation scores') +
ylab('Intrinsic motivation scores') +
xlab('Time points') +

Open technical reports for the technically-minded

When Roger Giner-Sorolla three years ago lamented to me, how annoying it can be to dig out interesting methods/results information from a manuscript with a carefully crafted narrative, I wholeheartedly agreed. When I saw the 100%CI post on reproducible websites a year ago, I thought it was cool but way too tech-y for me.

Well, it turned out that when you learn a tiny bit of elementary R Markdown, you can follow idiot-proof instructions on how to make cool websites out of your analysis code. I was also working on the manuscript-version of my Master’s thesis, and realised several commenters thought much of the methods stuff I considered interesting, was just unnecessary and/or boring.

So I made this thing of what I thought was the beef of the paper (also, to motivate me to finally submit that damned piece):


It got me thinking: Perhaps we could create a parallel form of literature, where (open) highly technical and (closed) traditionally narrated documents coexist. The R Markdown research notes could be read with only a preregistration or a blog post to guide the reader, while the journals could just continue with business as usual. The great thing is that, as Ruben Arslan pointed out in the 100%CI post, you can present a lot of results and analyses, which is nice if you’d do them anyway and data sharing a no-no in your field. In general, if there’s just too much conservative inertia in your field, this could be a way around it: Let the to-be-extinct journals build paywalls around your articles, but put the important things openly available. The people who get pissed off by that sort of stuff rarely look at technical supplements anyway 🙂

I’d love to hear your thoughts of the feasibility of the approach, as well as how to improve such supplements!


After some insightful comments by Gjalt-Jorn Peters, I started thinking how this could be abused. We’ve already seen how e.g. preregistration can be used as a signal of illusory quality (1, 2), and supplements like this could do the same thing. Someone could just bluff by cramming the thing full of difficult-to-interpret analyses, and claim “hey, it’s all there!”. One helpful thing is to expect heavy use of visualisations, which are less morbid to look at than numeric tables and raw R output. Another option would be creating a wonderful shiny app, like Emorie Beck did.

Actually, let’s take a moment to marvel at how super awesomesauce that thing is.


So, to continue: I don’t know how difficult it really is to make such a thing. I’m sure a lot of tech-savvy people readily say it’s the simplest thing in the world, and I’m sure a lot of people will see the supplements I presented here as a shitton of learning to do. I don’t have a solution. But if you’re a PI, you can do both yourself and your doctoral students a favour by nudging them towards learning R; maybe they’ll make a shiny app (or whatever’s in season then) for you one day!

ps. If I’d do the R Markdown all over again, I’d do more and better plots, as well as put more emphasis on readability, including better annotation of my code and decisions. Some of that code is from when I first learned R, and it’s a bit … rough. (In the last moment before submitting my Master’s thesis I decided, in a small state of frustrated fury, to re-do all analyses in R so that I needn’t mention SPSS or Excel in the thesis…)

pps. In the manuscript, I link to the page via a GitHub Pages url shortener, but provide permalink (web page stored with the Wayback Machine) in the references. We’ll see what the journal thinks of that.

ppps. There are probably errors lurking around, so please notify me when you see them 🙂