Replacing bar graphs of continuous data with more informative graphics: Are we making progress?
Recent work has raised awareness about the need to replace bar graphs of continuous data with informative graphs showing the data distribution. The impact of these efforts is not known. This observational meta-research study examined how often scientists in different fields use various graph types, and assessed whether visualization practices have changed between 2010 and 2020. We developed and validated an automated screening tool, designed to identify bar graphs of counts or proportions, bar
... raphs of continuous data, bar graphs with dot plots, dot plots, box plots, violin plots, histograms, pie charts, and flow charts. Papers from 23 fields (approximately 1,000 papers/field/year) were randomly selected from PubMed Central and screened (n=227,998). F1 scores for different graphs ranged between 0.83 and 0.95 in the internal validation set. While the tool also performed well in external validation sets, F1 scores were lower for uncommon graphs. Bar graphs are more often used incorrectly to display continuous data than they are used correctly to display counts or proportions. The proportion of papers that use bar graphs of continuous data varies markedly across fields (range in 2020: 4%-58%), with high rates in biochemistry and cell biology, complementary and alternative medicine, physiology, genetics, oncology and carcinogenesis, pharmacology, microbiology and immunology. Visualization practices have improved in some fields in recent years. Fewer than 25% of papers use flow charts, which provide information about attrition and the risk of bias. This study highlights the need for continued interventions to improve visualization and identifies fields that would benefit most.