Assessing the robustness of cluster solutions obtained from sparse count matrices

Kathleen M. Gates, Zachary F. Fisher, Cara Arizmendi, Teague R. Henry, Kelly A. Duffy, Peter J. Mucha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Psychological researchers often seek to obtain cluster solutions from sparse count matrices (e.g., social networks; counts of symptoms that are in common for 2 given individuals; structural brain imaging). Increasingly, community detection methods are being used to subset the data in a data-driven manner. While many of these approaches perform well in simulation studies and thus offer some improvement upon traditional clustering approaches, there is no readily available approach for evaluating the robustness of these solutions in empirical data. Researchers have no way of knowing if their results are due to noise. We describe here 2 approaches novel to the field of psychology that enable evaluation of cluster solution robustness. This tutorial also explains the use of an associated R package, perturbR, which provides researchers with the ability to use the methods described herein. In the first approach, the cluster assignment from the original matrix is compared against cluster assignments obtained by randomly perturbing the edges in the matrix. Stable cluster solutions should not demonstrate large changes in the presence of small perturbations. For the second approach, Monte Carlo simulations of random matrices that have the same properties as the original matrix are generated. The distribution of quality scores ("modularity") obtained from the cluster solutions from these matrices are then compared with the score obtained from the original matrix results. From this, one can assess if the results are better than what would be expected by chance. perturbR automates these 2 methods, providing an easy-to-use resource for psychological researchers. We demonstrate the utility of this package using benchmark simulated data generated from a previous study and then apply the methods to publicly available empirical data obtained from social networks and structural neuroimaging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)675-689
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological Methods
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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