Five years ago on this day, Nicolas Bray and I wrote a blog post on The network nonsense of Manolis Kellis in which we described the paper Feizi et al. 2013 from the Kellis lab as dishonest and fraudulent. Specifically, we explained that:

“Feizi et al. have written a paper that appears to be about inference of edges in networks based on a theoretically justifiable model but

  1. the method used to obtain the results in the paper is completely different than the idealized version sold in the main text of the paper and
  2. the method actually used has parameters that need to be set, yet no approach to setting them is provided. Even worse, 
  3. the authors appear to have deliberately tried to hide the existence of the parameters. It looks like 
  4. the reason for covering up the existence of parameters is that the parameters were tuned to obtain the results. Moreover,
  5. the results are not reproducible. The provided data and software is not enough to replicate even a single figure in the paper. This is disturbing because
  6. the performance of the method on the simplest of all examples, a correlation matrix arising from a Gaussian graphical model, is poor.”

A second point we made is that the justification for the method, which the authors called “network deconvolution” was nonsense. For example, the authors wrote that “The model assumes that networks are “linear time-invariant flow-preserving operators.” Perhaps I take things too literally when I read papers but I have to admit that five years later I still don’t understand the sentence. However just because a method is ad-hoc, heuristic, or perhaps poorly explained, doesn’t mean it won’t work well in practice. In the blog post we compared network deconvolution to regularized partial correlation on simulated data, and found network deconvolution performed poorly. But in a responding comment, Kellis noted that “in our experience, partial correlation performed very poorly in practice.” He added that “We have heard very positive feedback from many other scientists using our software successfully in diverse applications.”

Fortunately we can now evaluate Kellis’ claims in light of an independent analysis in Wang, Pourshafeie, Zitnik et al. 2018, a paper from the groups of Serafim Batzoglou and Jure Leskovec (in collaboration with Carlos Bustamante) at Stanford University. There are three main results presented in Wang, Pourshafeie and Zitnik et al. 2018 that summarize the benchmarking of network deconvolution and other methods, and I reproduce figures showing the results below. The first shows the performance of network deconvolution and some other network denoising methods on a problem of butterfly species identification (network deconvolution is abbreviated ND and is shown in green). RAW (in blue) is the original unprocessed network. Network deconvolution is much worse than RAW:


The second illustrates the performance of network denoising methods on Hi-C data. The performance metric in this case is normalized mutual information (NMI) which Wang, Pourshafeie, Zitnik et al. described as “a fair representation of overall performance”. Network deconvolution (ND, dark green) is again worse than RAW (dark blue):


Finally, in an analysis of gene function from tissue-specific gene interaction networks, ND (blue) does perform better than RAW (pink) although barely. In four cases out of eight shown it is the worst of the four methods benchmarked:


Network deconvolution was claimed to be applicable to any network when it was published. At the time, Feizi stated that “We applied it to gene networks, protein folding, and co-authorship social networks, but our method is general and applicable to many other network science problems.” A promising claim, but in reality it is difficult to beat the nonsense law: Nonsense methods tend to produce nonsense results.

The Feizi et al. 2013 paper now has 178 citations, most of them drive by citations. Interestingly this number, 178 is exactly the number of citations of the Barzel et al. 2013 network nonsense paper, which was published in the same issue of Nature Biotechnology. Presumably this reflects the fact that authors citing one paper feel obliged to cite the other. These pair of papers were thus an impact factor win for the journal. For the first authors on the papers, the network deconvolution/silencing work is their most highly cited first author papers respectively. Barzel is an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University where he links to an article about his network nonsense on his “media page”. Feizi is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland where he lists Feizi et al. 2013 among his “selected publications“. Kellis teaches the “network deconvolution” and its associated nonsense in his computational biology course at MIT. And why not? These days truth seems to matter less and less in every domain. A statement doesn’t have to be true, it just has to work well on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or some webpage, and as long as some people believe it long enough, say until the next grant cycle, promotion evaluation, or election, then what harm is done? A win-win for everyone. Except science.