How user-friendly should bioinformatics documentation be?

Imagine that you have never seen a SAM output file before. Now imagine that you are relatively new to bioinformatics, perhaps you are PhD student doing a rotation in a bioinformatics lab. If you are asked to work with some SAM files, you might reasonably want to look at the SAM documentation to understand the structure of this 11-column plain text file format.

Let's consider just the second column of a SAM output file. You've been looking at the SAM file that your boss provided to you and you notice that column 2 is full of integer values, mostly 0, 4, and 16. You want to know what these mean and so you turn to the relevant section of the SAM documentation to find out more about column 2:

Column 2 — FLAG: bitwise FLAG

Each bit is explained in the following table:

Bit — Description
0x1 — template having multiple segments in sequencing
0x2 — each segment properly aligned according to the aligner
0x4 — segment unmapped
0x8 — next segment in the template unmapped
0x10 — SEQ being reverse complemented
0x20 — SEQ of the next segment in the template being reversed
0x40 — the first segment in the template
0x80 — the last segment in the template
0x100 — secondary alignment
0x200 — not passing quality controls
0x400 — PCR or optical duplicate
0x800 — supplementary alignment

  • For each read/contig in a SAM file, it is required that one and only one line associated with the read satisfies ‘FLAG & 0x900 == 0’. This line is called the primary line of the read.
  • Bit 0x100 marks the alignment not to be used in certain analyses when the tools in use are aware of this bit. It is typically used to flag alternative mappings when multiple mappings are presented in a SAM.
  • Bit 0x800 indicates that the corresponding alignment line is part of a chimeric alignment. A line flagged with 0x800 is called as a supplementary line.
  • Bit 0x4 is the only reliable place to tell whether the read is unmapped. If 0x4 is set, no assumptions can be made about RNAME, POS, CIGAR, MAPQ, bits 0x2, 0x10, 0x100 and 0x800, and the bit 0x20 of the previous read in the template.
  • If 0x40 and 0x80 are both set, the read is part of a linear template, but it is neither the first nor the last read. If both 0x40 and 0x80 are unset, the index of the read in the template is unknown. This may happen for a non-linear template or the index is lost in data processing.
  • If 0x1 is unset, no assumptions can be made about 0x2, 0x8, 0x20, 0x40 and 0x80.

So having read all of this, my question to you is: what does a value of zero in your SAM file correspond to?

To me this is far from clear from the documentation. You first have to understand what bitwise actually means. You then need to understand that these bitwise flag values will be represented as an integer value in the SAM file (this is mentioned in passing elsewhere in the documentation).

Finally, you must deduce that a value of zero in your SAM output file means that no bitwise flags have been set. So, if the 3rd 'segment unmapped' bit isn't set, then that means that your segment (i.e. sequence) was mapped. Likewise, the lack of a 5th bit (reverse complemented) means that your sequence match must be on the forward strand.

Phew. I find this to be be frustratingly opaque and in desperate need of some examples. Particularly because zero values in a SAM output file are among the most common things that a user will see. The above table could also benefit from including equivalent integer values, to make it clearer than 0x10 = 16, 0x20 = 32 etc.

I've raised a GitHub issue regarding these points. The larger issue here is that I think software developers sometimes assume too much about the skill set of their end users and fail to write their documentation in terms that mere mortals will understand.