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5 Visualisation Tools to Accelerate your Research

We canvas five useful tools and apps for visualising and exploring scientific literature.

At Litmaps we're in the business of creating interactive visualisations of scientific literature. A good visualisation makes it easier to navigate and understand the literature, and thus allow researchers to be more productive. We think this is pretty useful, so it's not surprising other people have also made cool stuff to solve this problem.

First of all, what exactly is a scientific literature visualisation? For this post, we will define it as a graphic which illustrates information about a group of scientific papers, such date of publication, discipline, impact, and most importantly, how the papers are citing each other. Typically, papers are represented as dots or circles, and a citation link is indicated by a line connecting them.

We'll canvas five useful tools and apps for visualising and exploring scientific literature. They're all fun to play with, so give them a try!

1. Litmaps

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Litmaps.co allows you to create interactive citation visualisations (literature maps) of keywords, authors, or bibliographies. Literature maps can be bootstrapped by importing bibliographies or ORCID profiles, or by incrementally adding papers via search and citation navigation. Network analysis tools provide recommendations of papers which are closely related to your current project.

Strengths:

  • Highly customisable visualisations which can be exported as PNG or PDF.
  • Compatible with BibTeX, ORCID, Zotero, Endnote, and Mendeley.
  • Paper recommendation tool to find papers related to your project via citations, keywords, or both. Receive notifications when new articles relating to your project are published.

Weaknesses:

  • Creating a visualisation requires creating an account.
  • Impact isn't indicated in visualisations.

2. Connected Papers

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In ConnectedPapers.com, you indicate a paper you are interested in, and the app will generate a graph showing related papers and how they cite to one another. Relatedness is determined by co-citation and bibliometric coupling. That is, papers which often cite or are cited by the same papers will be highly related to each other. Related papers are then clustered via a force directed graph, and citation shortest paths between papers are highlighted. Connected Papers also has tools for finding the most relevant prior or derivative work to a given paper.

Strengths:

  • Quickly finds a comprehensive list high-quality related papers.
  • Visualisation quickly communicates a lot of information.

Weaknesses:

  • Related papers can only be obtained from an initial paper, not from keywords, authors, or sets of papers.
  • The visualisations cannot be customised and can be difficult to interpret.

3. Paperscape

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Paperscape.com visualises the entire corpus of scientific papers in the arXiV repository with an interface similar to Google Maps. Papers are represented by circles, and the more citations the papers has, the bigger its circle is. The layout of circles comes from modelling the papers as a physical system of particles, so that papers which cite each other will be clustered together. The colour of a circle indicates the paper's discipline. Citations and references can be visualised as shown above. (There's also a modern frontend: https://github.com/dialect-map/dialect-map-ui)

Strengths:

  • Visualisations are beautiful and communicate the big picture of scientific literature.

Weaknesses:

  • Data is limited to arXiV. Content is mostly limited to physics, mathematics, and computer science.
  • Difficult to discern small-scale information, such as how a set of papers reference one another.
  • No mechanism for customising visualisations or recommending papers.

4. Scite

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In Scite.ai, you specify a paper you are interested in, and it will give you a visualisation of all the papers which cite or are cited by that paper. In addition, each citation will be classified by a deep learning model as supporting, disputing, or mentioning the cited paper. Scite also provides tools for evaluating journal quality, tracking new publications in your area of interest, and investigating funders.

Strengths:

  • Scite is the only service on this list which can classify citations. It is ideal for understanding the meaning of citations.

Weaknesses:

  • Visualisations are limited to a single papers and its immediate citation connections, and don't indicate chronology.
  • No mechanism for customising visualisations or recommending papers.
  • Access is limited to a free trial and paid subscription.

5. CitNetExplorer

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CitNetExplorer provides timeline style visualisations of citation networks. An existing set of papers can be expanded to the most connected neighbours, or narrowed down to the core articles. Clusters of articles can be automatically detected and colour coded. The longest, shortest, or all paths between any pair of papers can be found.

Strengths:

  • Clearly communicates the chronology of papers.
  • Powerful analysis and selection tools

Weaknesses:

  • Desktop application, so requires download.
  • Doesn't connect to the Web of Science database directly. You need to manually download data and add it to CitNetExplorer.

So which visualisation tool should you choose?

If you want to customise a visualisation for a publication or to understand the timeline of a discipline, you should use Litmaps. If you don't mind the hassle of downloading the app and data, CitNetExplorer may also be a good option.

If you want recommendations you should use Litmaps or Connected Papers. Connected Papers will quickly find recommendations based on a seed paper, and show you how these are connected to one another. Litmaps can find recommendations based on a single paper, a set of papers, or a set of papers and a search term.

If you want to get a big-picture sense of an entire discipline, then you should use Paperscape (provided the discipline falls within physics, maths, or computer science).

If you want to understand whether or not a paper is supported by the rest of the literature, you should use Scite.

If you want an interactive exploration of a field, to get a sense of its scope and landmarks, then any of these tools will be useful. But the most useful will probably be Litmaps, CitNetExplorer, and Paperscape.

With these tools in your belt, you'll be able to quickly navigate and understand the literature. This means quickly finding the seminal papers in a new discipline, testing the novelty of a research proposal, checking for holes in your bibliography, understanding the impact of some research, and tracing the origin of an idea.

June 22, 2021
by 
Hamish Huggard
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