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plot spread points (beeswarm plot)

version 1.2 (12.8 KB) by

plotSpread plots distributions of data points, adding jitter to the points to avoid overlap.

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Editor's Note: This file was selected as MATLAB Central Pick of the Week

plotSpread allows creating "beeswarm plots", i.e. point distributions where jitter has been added to the data points to avoid overlap.
It further allows specifying groups within the data to show the distribution of the groups inside a distribution.
plotSpread is most suited to visualizing distributions with small amounts of data points. If the points become too dense, it becomes difficult to appreciate the relative importance of modes of a distribution, in which case "distributionPlot" should be used.

plotSpread uses the excellent "distinguishable_colors" to choose default colors for different categories.

In addition, the .zip file contains "myErrorbar" (a modification of the built-in errorbar), "repeatEntries" for easy repetition of entries in a list, and "isEven" to test whether a number is even. For both "repeatEntries" and "isEven" there are better alternatives on the File Exchange.

Comments and Ratings (22)


Till (view profile)

Great contribution, very appreciated!

A suggestion: currently it seems that points that are closer to the left/right margins of the distribution are plotted after the ones that are closer to the vertical line around which the distribution is centered. In one of my cases where I plotted lots of points (~ 2000) with the round marker ('o'), this resulted in the graphically not very pleasing effect that the points in the center occluded each other but the ones along the left/right margin were positioned "on top" of the, admittedly, very busy distribution. I am aware that it's probably not ideal to plot that many points, but in case one wants to it might be better to first plot the individual points from outside->in and not inside->out. Hope that was not too confusing...

Brad Stiritz

Thanks for your work, this is a nice start. Dot plot / beeswarm plot is sorely needed in Matlab!

If you are thinking about doing any further work on this function, would you please take a look at Aron Eklund's beeswarm package for R, at the URL below?

In particular, would you please consider implementing his "square" plot option? This does not generate random jitter, which is distracting in many contexts. It is much easier on the eyes and brain to visually process the "square" beeswarm plot.

Also, Matlab now generates perceptually uniform colors out of the box, via function parula (R2014b and later). If possible, appropriate code changes there would be appreciated as well, please.


James (view profile)

Hello, I have a big question: is there a way to connect points between different conditions?

Pierre Mégevand

A very good function that allows a variety of plots and fills a gap in the plotting abilities of MATLAB.



Jonas (view profile)

@Rainer, Eric: As plotSpread returns the handles to the points, you can change the marker color like so: handles=plotSpread(yourData); set(handles{1},'color','r'); Use another string, or a [r,g,b] array to choose a different color.


Eric (view profile)

I had the same problem, and I got around it by tricking the function into using two categories, where the second category is empty. I made an addtional row of NaN on the input data, then made a categoryIdx vector of all zeros, except set the end value to one. This makes the plot technically have 2 categories, though the second category is completely empty and not plotted. Then you just use categoryColor to set your color to whatever color you need.


Rainer (view profile)

Great submission. I found that there is no way to specify marker colors if there is only ONE group? It always defaults to blue.


Jonas (view profile)

@Sneha: plotSpread(data, 'showMM', 5) shows standard deviation, plotSpread(data, 'showMM', 4) shows standard error of the mean.


Sneha (view profile)

Is there a way to add errorbars to the plotSpread graphs?


Jonas (view profile)

@Yuri: Thank you for the hint. I'll look into fixing this.

Yuri K

Yuri K (view profile)

I found that distinguishable_colors function requires makecform function from Image Processing Toolbox. Not every installation has it.


Jonas (view profile)

To change marker size programmatically, you can use the function "findall" to get the handles for the spots. Say you want to set the marker size to 16 of the black markers, and the figure number is 3, you could write


Ana (view profile)


Thanks for the script!!Is really useful but can you tell me how I change the marker size in your script?




Good script !! Can you implement plotting the mean, median, errorbar, or others with categoryIdx? if yes, how?



peter (view profile)

It works now !!!
Thanks a lot.


Jonas (view profile)

@peter: "ismatrix" only appeared in 2010b. I've tried and failed to install 2009b today, so I wasn't able to make sure that I haven't included another incompatible function call. Have you been able to test the new version?


peter (view profile)

I am actually running 2010a, but I still do not have it ?


Jonas (view profile)

ismatrix is a built-in function from a release later than R2009b - sorry for the mis-labeling of plotSpread. I am replacing ismatrx and I'll upload a fixed version soon


peter (view profile)

I tested your example and got the following:
I think you forgot to include "ismatrix" function ?
??? Undefined function or method 'ismatrix' for input arguments of type

Error in ==> plotSpread at 196
elseif ismatrix(data)



Updated support for categoryLabels, fixed help


Replaced the call to ismatrix, which is a function that only appeared in MATLAB after R2009b

MATLAB Release
MATLAB 7.9 (R2009b)

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