Numerous methods of RNA-Seq data analysis have been developed, and there are more under active development. In this paper, the authors focus on evaluating the impact of each processing stage; from pre-processing of sequencing reads to alignment/counting to count normalization to differential expression testing to downstream functional analysis, on the inferred functional pattern of biological response.
They assess the impact of 6,912 combinations of technical and biological factors on the resulting signature of transcriptomic functional response. Given the absence of the ground truth, we use two complementary evaluation criteria:
a) consistency of the functional patterns identified in two similar comparisons, namely effects of a naturally-toxic medium and a medium with artificially reconstituted toxicity, and
b) consistency of results in RNA-Seq and microarray versions of the same study.
These results show that despite high variability at the low-level processing stage (read pre-processing, alignment and counting) and the differential expression calling stage, their impact on the inferred pattern of biological response was surprisingly low; they were instead overshadowed by the choice of the functional enrichment method. The latter have an impact comparable in magnitude to the impact of biological factors per se.