Speeding up scholarly communication for rapid sharing

Dalmeet Singh Chawla rounds up the recent discussion about single figure publications

July 21, 2015

William Mobley, a neuroscientist from the University of California, San Diego, is urging academic publishers to start offering authors the option to publish short units of communication, which he calls “single figure publications” (SFPs) in an editorial published in F1000Research.

The idea behind SFPs is to speed up scholarly communication, and make it more efficient by encouraging researchers to submit shorter publications with a particular focus on data, instead of waiting to publish them as part of larger research papers.

The editorial calls for an “optimal format” of scholarly communication to ensure the findings presented are valid with full declaration of all materials and methods, rapidly shared with minimal delays, machine-readable and free of bias. These micro-publications would, the editorial proposes, consist of a figure, a legend, material and methods, and an optional results section.

“While the traditional format of journal articles will continue to be used to tell the important ‘stories’ of scientific journeys,” smaller units of communication are needed to enhance science further, the editorial says.

“The SFP represents a ‘bottom-up’ means by which scholars can structure the content of their findings in a modular and piece-wise fashion wedded to everyday laboratory life,” the editorial adds.

Publishing nimble units of data, known as nano-publications, has become common in recent years; there are now whole repositories and journals, such as Scientific Data, dedicated to publishing data. But, according to the editorial, SFPs aim to build an “important bridge” between traditional journal papers and data nano-publications.

SFPs could be used to publish confirmatory data, negative results, data refuting published results and analysis of manufacturer-made reagents or materials, explains Professor Mobley. “People need to know when something doesn’t work the way others have proposed that it works.” This would also help to measure reproducibility of papers, he adds.

A key feature of SFPs, notes Professor Mobley, is that it would avoid the traditional “method shrink”, and ensure authors are explicit about the procedures their followed, and the materials they used.  

Long Do, co-author of the editorial, says SFPs started off as a “research social network” called “OneLab”, where academics could a post a figure from their research and share it with their colleagues, either in a private or public conversation. This is now run as a non-profit organisation, and is shared with publishers who plan to implement a similar model, he says.

Although, one drawback of SFPs, adds Professor Mobley, is that they are not currently considered a “prestigious” way of publishing, as it’s “not what gets you promoted at a university”.

SFPs may also face a backlash from traditional publishers, says Scott Edmunds, executive editor of the journal GigaScience. “Science is supposed to be about standing on the shoulders of giants, and I strongly agree that building upon a base of smaller units will lead to much sturdier foundations, and much more rapid advances,” he says.   

Another hindrance to SFPs and more granular publications is the issue of scalability and overload of information, warns Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal. “The current biomedical literature already encompasses over 25,000 peer reviewed journals that publish over 1.5 million papers/year, growing 5% annually,” he says. “The additional data would minimally add an order of magnitude of additional information.”

“[SFPs are] a marketplace of ideas driven by data,” Professor Mobley says. “In the end, we can’t trust our interpretations.”

Dalmeet Singh Chawla is a freelance science journalist based in London

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Reader's comments (1)

We need to develop scalable means to share the immense amounts of data generated in the biosciences in a discoverable manner. We need either compelling incentives or clear mandates from funders to encourage scientists to share data in this way on the one hand and to review and curate the data on the other hand. SFPs or other forms to share useful data will only add value if they are subject to some level of quality control and if they are structured in a way that makes the information amenable to machine interrogation and search. Furthermore, the data needs to be published in a form that is extractable and usable (‘actionable’). We have encouraged this in research papers at EMBO Press for several years - about 60% of the papers now contain source data (i.e. data that is minimally processed and extractable). Nanopublication and traditional research papers are not mutually exclusive: papers can be enhanced at the granularity of SFPs – equivalent to figure panels in papers that often representing individual experiments. Panels can be tagged with author names, experimental methods and protocols, minimally processed source data and indeed citations (DOIs) at this level. This will enhance the reproducibility of the data. Importantly it will also provide credit for the researchers who carried out this specific work, while also ensuring accountability - for example when ethical problems arise with specific experiments. Whatever the format of data sharing, it will be important to distinguish between information that has been subject to peer review, information that is quality controlled and curated, and shared unstructured information.