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My favourite graphing and plotting software

Preparing graphics for experimental write-ups is always a bit of a minefield. Everyone has their favourite software for preparing histograms, plots and charts and if you’re happy with a program and have a good handle on how it works, you’re probably best off sticking with what you know. For me though, the important aspects when choosing a bit of software to use in this area are primarily aesthetic – I like very clean-looking, uncluttered charts which maximise clarity and readability. Before talking about my favourite bits of software I’ll talk about one that you definitely should not use – Microsoft Excel.

A ‘classic’ MS excel chart. Fugly. Avoid.

Excel is great for a lot of things, but making plots is not one of them. The older versions of Excel in particular just look awful, yet I still see these kinds of plots in so many published papers – every time I see one I do a massive internal facepalm; it just looks totally amateur-ish. The newer versions look a bit better, but still – to be avoided if you want to be taken seriously. Also, for the love of God, never use anything like this:

Excel 3D chart. This way doth madness lie.

3D-effect histograms do not make your data look cool and professional. They are for shiny-suited advertising executives and madmen. End of discussion.

So, what should you use? For years, I was a big fan of SigmaPlot; a very powerful program with a whole host of awesome features that produces some really beautiful results. Unfortunately, I never found the user interface very friendly or intuitive – for most users there’s a fairly steep learning curve involved in using it, but it does produce really nice results, so it’s worth persevering. The level of customisation and formatting options available for your plots are fantastic, and well beyond anything you can achieve in Excel. One other great feature is that SigmaPlot will export plots as very high-quality bitmaps or tiffs (up to 600dpi) for incorporation into figures for papers.

SigmaPlot screenshot with a very pretty plot.

I stuck with SigmaPlot for years because I liked the results, and I (eventually) got comfortable with the interface. However, since switching to (mostly) using a Mac a couple of years ago, I’ve been searching for a good replacement (SigmaPlot is unfortunately PC-only). I think I’ve finally found one – GraphPad Prism. Prism produces really nice, high-quality, simple-looking plots, plus the interface is mercifully friendly, with a lot of built-in demos using sample data which you can modify with your own data very easily.

A sample Prism plot – simple, clear, clean… nice.

The unfortunate downside of both SigmaPlot and Graphpad Prism is that they are both commercial pieces of software which cost real money (although Prism does have a 30-day trial period in which you can try it out). I normally like to recommend free software on this site, but unfortunately I’ve never found anything which compares to these two recommendations in the freeware/shareware world. People have told me that R can produce some very nice plots, and I’m sure they’re right, but because of the command-line interface it’s something that I’d hesitate to recommend for beginners/students. I’ve also had a good poke-around online and haven’t found any decent online tools for making nice-looking basic plots. Well, there’s this one, which (bizarrely) seems to be aimed at kids, and this one which seems OK-ish (but requires sign-up, so y’know… fail) but they’re nothing I’d heartily recommend.

If anyone has any other suggestions for their favourite (preferably free!) software for this kind of thing, whether online or offline, please let me know in the comments! Happy plotting!


PlagTracker – free online service for plagiarism checking

Just a very quick post to point you towards something I recently came across through the power of This is an online service which will scan a block of text (i.e. an essay/paper) and compare it to internet pages and a database of academic papers. The best thing about it though, is that it’s completely free!

I tested it out by pasting in a block of text from a previous post on this blog, and it seemed to perform pretty well, in that it correctly identified the source of the material as this site. It produces quite a nicely formatted report with links to the source material too: report.

Pretty cool. The web interface means it probably isn’t that useful for essay-markers who want to batch-check a whole load of student essays, but if I was a student, I would definitely be using this service to check my essays before submission – plagiarism can happen by accident after all, and can often be fixed by just citing the correct sources. I say ‘often’ because you still have to remember the golden rule of undergraduate essays – for the love of God, don’t cite Wikipedia as a source!


Automatic Essay Marking

The absolute worst experience for any educational professional is to sit down on an evening or a weekend (it always seems to be an evening or weekend, when you should be doing something more enjoyable) with 100 essays or exam scripts, all on the same topic, and slowly, resentfully, plod your way through and grade them. It’s hell. At times like that I would have been willing to cut off a finger if somebody could have showed me a way that they could all be marked automatically.

Well, recently it seems the prayers of educators may have been answered. Several companies are working on software that automatically gives marks/grades to written assignments. This article covers the basics, but briefly, students can upload their work to a web-portal, and get instant feedback on their written work. One particular company has produced a piece of software called ‘SAGRader‘ which they claim uses artificial intelligence and NLP (Natural Language Processing) algorithms to effectively ‘read’ the essay, and thereby provide much more detailed and specific feedback on the content. Such a system should in theory be able to not only grade on simple things like spelling and grammar (Word processors have been detecting and correcting these things for years) but on the actual semantic content of a piece of work. If it works, this would be a massive help, and the numbers and testimonials on the SAGrader website do seem to suggest that it works. What you have to remember is that human graders are massively fallible so, to be useful, a piece of software doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be better than human graders. Read the rest of this entry

The student essay as an assessment technique – an obsolete technology?

This post is a bit of a diversion from normal service, but it’s been inspired by some things I’ve been reading recently on essays (or ‘papers’ for my North American readers) and student assessment. The first was this piece on plagiarism and essay-mills, and the second was this piece here. Both highlight some current issues with assessment methods at university/college level, such as plagiarism, something which I’ve also covered before.

So anyway, in keeping (vaguely) with the theme of this blog I thought I’d take a look at the essay/paper as a technique (or ‘technology’ if you will – see what I did there?) for educational assessment and try and determine whether it’s still up-to-date, or as obsolete as a 5-inch floppy disk. Or a 28.8K modem. Or leaving your goddam twitter account alone for five minutes and giving someone your undivided attention during a social interaction. You get the idea.

So, the essay* as a literary format is a curious one. Canonically it has its origins in the 1580s with Michel de Montaigne; probably the first person to describe themselves as an ‘essayist’, although he was apparently inspired by Plutarch. Interestingly, a similar format existed in the Japanese literary tradition since its very early period. It first became formalised as a standard way of assessing students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Read the rest of this entry

Reference Management Software

Since this is my very first post on this blog, I’ll start off with what I regard as the best bit of advice that can be given to a student of any discipline: Use some kind of reference management software. For my money, this is the number one, absolute-must, tippety-top thing that you can do that will make your life as a student easier, bump up your productivity, and help to increase your grades.

Once more just in case you missed it: Use some reference management software! If you’re an undergraduate student with essays to write and you’re not using it, you’re an idiot. If you’re a grad student with a long-form thesis to write and you’re not using it, then you’re insane. Read the rest of this entry