The problem of online “supporting information” in peer-review articles

supp2Most articles published in peer-review journals are organized into the following sections: Title, Authors, Affiliations, Abstract, Introduction, Results, Discussion, Materials and Methods (it could stand before Results), Acknowledgments, References, and Figure Legends. But every current researcher in the field of life sciences has already had some time with the stepsibling of those full blooded formal sections, the so called “supporting” or “supplementary” information section of online peer-review articles. Example: Supporting Information of advance online PNAS article Role of the chromobox protein CBX7 in lymphomagenesis.

The concept of “Supporting information” is a natural internet born online product (assume but not sure), unfortunately suffering from some conceptual problems. Before the internet most data belonging to a complete study, but not published in formal offline articles out of different reasons, were communicated personally (conferences, meetings, phone calls), or by mail, or were published later in books, sometimes as distinct articles otherwise never came into publicity and remained hidden in lab notebooks.

With the rising of the internet additional data, not suited to the formal offline article, moreover multimedial files (videos, audios, big resolution pictures) could find their way to online publication as supplementaries.

Because of this birth “Supplementary information” is a mixed concept (or a Restbegriff). The authors uplopad every information as supplementary info which are important for their story but do not fit with the main offline article form. For instance they publish cell culture data, additional nuclear genotyping, explaining cartoons, things, measuerments that can be excluded from the strict line of argument published in the paper, but othervise necessary to gain a larger picture, a more complete understanding and get enough experimental details in order to repeat the experiments properly which is a crucial point in accepting scientific results. Long story short: there are 2 heterogeneous types of information in the online “supplementary” sections of scientific articles: i., web genuine digital multimedial files that cannot be published offline, but otherwise crucial and ii., additional “paperlike” data, which theorethically could be published in the main article, but there is not enough space for that due to formal editorial restrictions or simply they are not fit into the main argument, the storyline of the published study.

The problematic status of supporting information comes from the above heterogeneity of its data: namely there is not a unifying principle by which these data could be presented as one besides the fact that they are the accessories of a published formal article. Sometimes you can read the supplementaries as a draft of an independent article, as the alternative “story” of the published one with (slightly) different results and conclusions in focus. And the artificial heterogeneity of supporting information is originating from the fact, that scientific results must be published (or perish!) in a traditional peer-review way in an offline, linear, strictly copyrighted journal so the scientifically more and more important multimedia files simply cannot fit into the world of traditionally formalized, published, copyrighted journals. From that problematic status I would like to derive an open-source like argument concerning supporting information in one of my next posts.

Update:
Let’s make ’supplementary’ peer-review scientific videos free and youtubish!
Nature Publishing Editor on the idea of a public scientific multimedia site

Nature: About supplementary information

9 thoughts on “The problem of online “supporting information” in peer-review articles

  1. I find that much of the “paperlike” data in the supplementary section is experiments that the reviewer(s) required for publication. Since the paper was originally submitted close to the maximum word/figure count, any additional experiments get shoved in there. The suggestions by the reviewers are often controls or esperiments disproving alternative hypothesis, so they tend to be a little off the storyline.

  2. I’m an editor at Nature: interesting post. For Nature, Brian is right to think that much “SI” is data reqired by the referees. As a publisher we think about this issue a lot. At the moment, Nature does various things: details of methods are pubished as an integral part of the online PDF and the full-text (HTML) version, but not the print; SI that is in “flat” format is merged into a single PDF for ease of reading; as you say you can’t do this for multimedia and editable formats, so we provide a webpage with any software downloads necessary for viewing or listening on the same page (which includes the PDF of the “flat” SI; and we make SI free access as it usually contains data.

  3. Thank you for the comments.
    “and we make SI free access as it usually contains data”
    Does this mean that I can download the microscopy videos, 3D visualizations from anywhere (home) and for free? Is it an existing possibility right now?
    Because that’s exactly what I would like to suggest in my next post, and derive from the above argument.

  4. Maxine,

    Can you provide us with a link to a recent reference of SI which contains microscopy, video or 3D visualizations? I would appreciate seeing that.

    Frog

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