Many short-read aligners have been published and nearly each of them is evaluated against some of the others. However, few of these benchmarks please me. Even my own benchmark is flawed in some aspects. This page points out my view of these benchmarks, about why they are flawed and how to improve them. In all, benchmarking is really a difficult task. To give a reasonable benchmark, one must thouroughly understand all the involved programs. Most of benchmarks are flawed due to failing this fundamental requirement.

Not measuring alignment errors

This is the most common and most severe flaw in aligner benchmarks. Frequently the developers say their own aligner is good because it aligns more reads. This metrics alone is simply wrong. Mapping more reads only means the aligner is sensitive. The specificity or accuracy of an aligner is far more important in practice. An aligner that maps more reads but produces far more errors is practically useless.

The simplest way to evaluate accuracy is to simulate reads. Because you know the exact coordinates, you can calculate the error rate. A better aligner should give few errors among, say, 80% of most reliable alignments.

Measuring specificity/accuracy on real data is more complicated. One way is to fabricate a hybridized reference, combining genomes from two species (see BWA-short paper). Another way is to do pairwise comparison between the resultant alignments in the principle that a more accurate aligner tends to place reads to better locations.

Improper input

The performance of an aligner may be greatly hampered given improper input. To use an aligner properly, one must understand how the aligners are working. Eland, maq, zoom, rmap and seqmap are highly inefficient if only a few thousand reads are aligned against a large genome. Aligning 1,000 reads with these aligners is nearly of the same speed in comparison to aligning 10,000 reads to the human genome.

Furthermore, BWT-based aligners are relatively more efficient on very long reference sequences such as the human genome, because their complexity is better than being linear to the reference length, while most other algorithms are linear in the length. BWT-based aligners can be 10X faster than some hash table based aligners if we align reads against the human genome, but may be slower than those aligners if we align against a bacterial genome.

Non-typical usage

This is a minor flaw which I also used to commit. Different aligners have different performance profiles given data of different characteristics. For example, bwa is fast on perfect hits, but slower on hits with many mismatches, while maq is less affected by sequencing error rates. As a result, using high-quality reads favours bwa but not maq. To make a fair comparison, we should use data typical to most genome centers and labs but not pick a data set that favour our own aligners.

Another example of non-typical use is to output multiple hits. Several benchmarks ask bowtie to output all hits. However, bowtie is not designed for this task. It will take a lot of time to get the chromosomal coordinates of the hits. What is more important, we seldom use all hits. Only very few downstream analyses take the advantages of mutliple hits, while most others simply discard multiple hits in the first place. It is not right to evaluate the multi-hit mode just because our own aligner is good at that. Benchmarks should always be set in a practical scenario.

Overweighing speed

Many developers pay excessive attention to speed but forget other metrics such as memory and features. They may claim their aligner is faster regardless of the fact that it uses far more memory or lacks features in other aligners (e.g. longer reads, gapped alignment and suboptimal hits). However, if they reduce the memory or implement these features, they will find their aligner is no faster than others. For example, many people claim that bowtie is faster than bwa, but by default bwa outputs much more information than bowtie. When we ask bowtie to retain enough suboptimal hits, it is similar to bwa in speed. In addition, bwa does gapped alignment which has additional overhead.

Not understanding the output

This flaw occurs occasionally, but once occurs it is a severe problem. I remember to read a paper saying that maq and bowtie are bad because they randomly place repetitive reads. However, both maq and bowtie give a way to discard these hits.