Noah Gray of Nothing's Shocking pointed to a recent editorial in Cell and whipped up a little analysis of three Nobel laureate's publications in Nature in response. The Cell editorial (in part) and Noah's analysis (in the main) focus on the current reality that many GlamourMag articles come with a host of extra supporting material that did not make it into the print article.
Actually, I think Noah may have mistaken the tone of the Cell editorial a trifle. It said:
One issue in particular that we at Cell will be focusing on in 2009 is redefining what constitutes a "publishable unit" in the age of electronic journals and how we can best present the information content of a scientific article online. The vision in our crystal ball is still blurred, but some key elements are beginning to take shape. The scientific article of the future will no longer be tied to the constraints of a printing press and will take advantage of all the opportunities afforded by the web to introduce a hierarchical rather than linear structure, increased graphical representations, and embedded multimedia. Inherent in our thinking about the scientific article of the future is the need to address the current unchecked growth in the amount of supplemental and supporting material and to identify constructive, well-defined guidelines for what is reasonably and appropriately included in a unit of scientific advance.
It will come as no surprise to my readers that I am NotAFan of the Supplemental Online Material which has become an obligatory part of scientific communications in certain journals. I am distinctly old-fashioned and think that when a communication is submitted, reviewed and accepted for publication on the basis of a body of text and figures, well, those should be part of the article. Not as some addendum that you have to go searching for, presented in rough manuscript format. A real part.
I am not so optimistic as to read the Cell editorial as any promise of reform however. If I am not mistaken, of the triumvirate of the GlamourMagz, Cell is the one that still presents something like real length descriptions, is it not? I sort of read it as saying they were going to put even more crap online, but I hope I am wrong. I mean sure, they take a few swipes at the competition, Nature and Science. Perhaps this is going to be the first shot in a little inter-Glamour warfare? As I said, Cell is already on the longer side so perhaps they can best afford a principled cessation of Online Supporting Material. They can then use this new discussion of a "unit of scientific advance" to beat up on Nature and Science for their discordant and hypocritical practices.
Pehaps I am cynical. Perhaps Cell will be leading the charge to roll back this asinine situation we are in under which it takes five years of work from at least a half a dozen doctoral (or in training) scientists to end up with one GlamourMag pub. Which presents maybe a fifth of the potentially useful data and maybe a twentieth or less of the effort involved. All of which gets lost to science because it doesn't "fit".
Now although I enjoy the points Noah Gray made, there is one little bit of obvious DM bait included. I should mention, I suppose, that Noah is not only a blogger but an editor at Nature (previously of Nature Neuroscience) for those who haven't been following along.
As the editors of Cell put it, if the publishable unit is going to change, it is going to take the cooperation of editors, authors and reviewers working together to find a reasonable and appropriate standard for publications. Because, after all, if our reviewers told us that 4 single panel figures were an exciting story that was highly impactful, we would publish it. Alas, they are not giving us this advice.
All the fault of the reviewers, isn't it? I mean, the editorial staff at Nature are just inert actors in this whole drama right?
It is a cycle Noah. You know this. The "best science" and the ProperWay to construct a journal article is defined by what you publish. So the only people who get in are those that agree, endorse and wholly benefit from the status quo. And, as we've discussed before, are considerably motivated to define "best" and "appropriate for Nature" in ways that categorically rule their own labs' type of work in, and other labs out, to the greatest extent possible. That way, the competitive field is narrowed. Is it any wonder that what is considered worthy of glamour magazine acceptance at any given time marches in lockstep with technology? When viewed with hindsight it is clear time and again that these categorical rules for inclusion of first molecular techniques, then knockout mice, then gene arrays, then... have little to do with the scientific brilliance and more to do with technological inclusion criteria.
So don't blame it on "the reviewers", my friend. Accept your own part in the self-referential system. If you agree that Supplemental Material is stupid, bring the editorial hammer. State that the published article should stand on its own, full stop. Refuse to send out manuscripts that contain way more data than will fit your eventual publication. Turn back reviewer requests for same.
Either that or just publish abstract books. Put the whole article online as one piece. Oh, ok, allow one teaser cover-image type figure. It's not too different from what you do already, right? .