A major challenge in computational biology is to find simple representations of high-dimensional data that best reveal the underlying structure. In this work, we present an intuitive and easy-to-implement method based on ranked neighborhood comparisons that detects structure in unsupervised data. The method is based on ordering objects in terms of similarity and on the mutual overlap of nearest neighbors. This basic framework was originally introduced in the field of social network analysis to detect actor communities. We demonstrate that the same ideas can successfully be applied tobiomedical data sets in order to reveal complex underlying structure. The algorithm is very efficient and works on distance data directly without requiring a vectorial embedding of data. Comprehensive experiments demonstrate the validity of this approach.
Comparisons with state-of-the-art clustering methods show that the presented method outperforms hierarchical methods as well as density based clustering methods and model-based clustering. A further advantage of the method is that it simultaneously provides a visualization of the data. Especially in biomedical applications, the visualization of data can be used as a first pre-processing step when analyzing real world data sets to get an intuition of the underlying data structure. We apply this model to synthetic data as well as to various biomedical data sets which demonstrate the high quality and usefulness of the inferred structure.