Novelty: an update

A recent tweet:


PubMed articles containing “novel” in title or abstract 1845 – 2014

made me think (1) has it really been 5 years, (2) gee, my ggplot skills were dreadful back then and (3) did I really not know how to correct for the increase in total publications?

So here is the update, at Github and a document at RPubs.

“Novel” findings, as judged by the usage of that word in titles and abstracts really have undergone a startling increase since about 1975. Indeed, almost 7.2% of findings were “novel” in 2014, compared with 3.2% for the period 1845 – 2014. That said, if we plot using a log scale as suggested by Tal on the original post, the rate of usage appears to be slowing down. See image, right (click for larger version).

As before, none of this is novel.

Searching for duplicate resource names in PMC article titles

I enjoyed this article by Keith Bradnam, and the associated tweets, on the problem of duplicated names for bioinformatics software.

I figured that to some degree at least, we should be able to search for such instances, since the titles of published articles that describe software often follow a particular pattern. There may even be a grammatical term for it, but I’ll call it the announcement colon:

eDuS: Segmental Duplication Simulator
Reveel: large-scale population genotyping using low-coverage sequencing data
RNF: a general framework to evaluate NGS read mappers
Hammock: A Hidden Markov model-based peptide clustering algorithm to identify protein-interaction consensus motifs in large datasets

You get the idea. “XXX COLON a [METHOD] to [DO SOMETHING] using [SOME DATA].”

Let’s go in search of announcement colons, using titles from the PubMed Central dataset. You can find this mini-project at Github.
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Virus hosts from NCBI taxonomy: now at Github

After my previous post on extracting virus hosts from NCBI Taxonomy web pages, Pierre wrote:

An excellent idea and here’s my first attempt.

Here’s a count of hosts. By the way NCBI, it’s environment.

cut -f4 virus_host.tsv | sort | uniq -c

    283 algae
    114 archaea
   4509 bacteria
      8 diatom
     51 enviroment
    267 fungi
      1 fungi| plants| invertebrates
      4 human
    761 invertebrates
    181 invertebrates| plants
      7 invertebrates| vertebrates
   3979 plants
    102 protozoa
   6834 vertebrates
 115052 vertebrates| human
     43 vertebrates| human  stool
    225 vertebrates| invertebrates
    656 vertebrates| invertebrates| human

Virus hosts from NCBI Taxonomy web pages

A Biostars question asks whether the information about virus host on web pages like this one can be retrieved using Entrez Utilities.

Pretty sure that the answer is no, unfortunately. Sometimes there’s no option but to scrape the web page, in the knowledge that this approach may break at any time. Here’s some very rough and ready Ruby code without tests or user input checks. It takes the taxonomy UID and returns the host, if there is one. No guarantees now or in the future!


require 'nokogiri'
require 'open-uri'

def get_host(uid)
	url   = "" + uid.to_s
	doc   = Nokogiri::HTML.parse(open(url).read)
	data  = doc.xpath("//td").collect { |x| x.inner_html.split("<br>") }.flatten
	data.each do |e|
		puts $1 if e =~ /Host:\s+<\/em>(.*?)$/


Save as taxhost.rb and supply the UID as first argument. Note: I chose 12345 off the top of my head, imagining that it was unlikely to be a virus and would make a good negative test. Turns out to be a phage!

$ ruby taxhost.rb 12249
$ ruby taxhost.rb 12721
$ ruby taxhost.rb 11709
vertebrates| human
$ ruby taxhost.rb 12345

Problematic cell lines: now in a real database

Back in July, I was complaining about the latest abuse of the word “database” by biologists: the “PDF as database.”

This led to some very productive discussion using PubMed Commons and I’m happy to report that misidentified and contaminated cell lines are now included in the NCBI BioSample database.

As the news release notes, rather alarmingly:

This problem is so common it is thought that thousands of misleading and potentially erroneous papers have been published using cell lines that are incorrectly identified

So it would be useful if there were a direct link between the BioSample record for a cell line and PubMed records in which it was used…
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Bioinformatics journals: time from submission to acceptance, revisited

Before we start: yes, we’ve been here before. There was the Biostars question “Calculating Time From Submission To Publication / Degree Of Burden In Submitting A Paper.” That gave rise to Pierre’s excellent blog post and code + data on Figshare.

So why are we here again? 1. It’s been a couple of years. 2. This is the R (+ Ruby) version. 3. It’s always worth highlighting how the poor state of publicly-available data prevents us from doing what we’d like to do. In this case the interesting question “which bioinformatics journal should I submit to for rapid publication?” becomes “here’s an incomplete analysis using questionable data regarding publication dates.”

Let’s get it out of the way then.
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Web scraping using Mechanize: PMID to PMCID/NIHMSID

Web services are great. Pass them a URL. Structured data comes back. Parse it, analyse it, visualise it. Done.

Web scraping – interacting programmatically with a web page – is not so great. It requires more code and when the web page changes, the code breaks. However, in the absence of a web service, scraping is better than nothing. It can even be rather satisfying. Early in my bioinformatics career the realisation that code, rather than humans, can automate the process of submitting forms and reading the results was quite a revelation.

In this post: how to interact with a web page at the NCBI using the Mechanize library.

Read the rest…

Interestingly: the sentence adverbs of PubMed Central

Scientific writing – by which I mean journal articles – is a strange business, full of arcane rules and conventions with origins that no-one remembers but to which everyone adheres.

I’ve always been amused by one particular convention: the sentence adverb. Used with a comma to make a point at the start of a sentence, as in these examples:

Surprisingly, we find that the execution of karyokinesis and cytokinesis is timely…
Grossly, the tumor is well circumscribed with fibrous capsule…
Correspondingly, the short-term Smad7 gene expression is graded…

The example that always makes me smile is interestingly. “This is interesting. You may not have realised that. So I said interestingly, just to make it clear.”

With that in mind, let’s go looking for sentence adverbs in article abstracts.
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