Already a while ago, in fall 2010 the Journal of Neuroscience announced that it will stop hosting and peer-reviewing supplementary material for articles, so authors are no longer allowed to include any additional materials when they submit new manuscripts. A radical cut and a practice I haven’t heard of yet.
Despite the fact that this journal is neither part of our research sample for EDaWaX’s work package 2 nor in the scientific field of Economics it is worth to investigate the motivation for banning the supplements.
And of course it is interesting to notice what the journal proposes to do instead of hosting and peer-reviewing supplementary material. In general the Journal of Neuroscience does not think that supplementary material is needless or unessential. These are good news.
The major motivation for removing supplementary material from their websites is comprehensible. John Maunsell, Editor-in-Chief, announces two reasons for changing this practice:
1) The amount of material associated with a typical article has grown dramatically. Maunsell has published a chart that shows the growth of data for articles as well as for supplementary materials in the past few years. While the size of articles has grown gradually over the past decade, the supplemental material associated with an article grew exponentially.
This fact is not the problem on its own as Maunsell stated:
“Making more information available is a good goal, and the financial costs of storing extra material electronically are small.”
But the problem starts at the point where a journal is not only peer reviewing the article but also the supplementary material – what is of course a necessary and useful attempt:
“…like most journals, [the Journal of Neuroscience] currently peer reviews supplemental material, the depth of that review is questionable. Most well qualified reviewers are overburdened with requests to review manuscripts, and many feel that it is too much to ask them to also evaluate supplemental material that can be as extensive as the article itself. It is obvious to editors that most reviewers put far less effort (often no effort) into examining supplemental material. Nevertheless, we certify the supplemental material as having passed peer review.”
That’s the fly in the ointment – and these are arguments are very coherent. But does this really justify the abandonment of all supplementary material? Is this the only possible consequence?! Let’s take a look at a second argument:
2) Another troubling problem associated with this context is that the extensive use of supplementary material in journals encourage reviewers to demand even more material and details. Reviewers increasingly insist that authors have to add further analysis, proofs, experiments etc. – even if these additions were subordinate or tangential. For the authors, the Editor-in-Chief stated, it is real work and sometimes unjustified burden. Additionally reviewer’s demands delay publication.
Hm. So far, so good…but…at first glance argument 1 and argument 2 doesn’t really seem to fit to each other: If reviewers have to much workload they demand authors to get even more of it?!
But maybe that’s only seemingly a contradiction because even if reviewers have a lot to do they are maybe wanting that the “scientific standard” of the journal is met. And even if they know that they will not able to check if these standards are really fulfilled, they might demand authors to submit even more material.
And the Journal’s contribution for solving these challenges?
“We believe that this is best accomplished by removing the supplemental material from the peer review process and requiring that each submission be evaluated and approved as a complete, self-contained scientific report. By allowing the authors to include a link to supplemental material on their own site, readers will continue to have access to any amount of additional material that the authors consider interesting, but with the clear warning that the material has not gone through peer review.”
In my opinion the journal chose an (too) easy way for “solving” this problem – they just got rid of it. Now, when authors are publishing an article he or she will be allowed to include a footnote with a URL that points to supplementary material on a site the authors support and maintain.
This is I think one of the worst offenders possible. Of course the journal might state now the sentence “the material is not peer-reviewed and the responsibility for these material is in the hands of the corresponding author”, but this doesn’t solve the challenges. Having the responsibility for supplementary material in the hands of the authors is definitely not a way to ensure that data and other supportive materials will be provided to other researchers or to the public nor is it a sustainable way to ensure that data and other material are usable, findable and that these data is preserved .
In contrast to the claim of Maunsell I think that authors will NOT maintain their sites “for as long as they consider their supplemental material to be valuable and important.”
In the scientific community publications are the currency for researchers – not supplementary material. There are almost no incentives for authors to do the extra job, if there is no gratification for it – or in contrast, if there is no policy that regulates the publication of data and other supplementary material.
In my opinion it is a bad joke that the Journal of Neuroscience claims that “removing supplemental material from articles might motivate more scientific communities to create repositories for specific types of structured data, which are vastly superior to supplemental material as a mechanism for disseminating data.” In fact these repositories are strongly needed, but to state “we are banning supplements – and that will help you to implement repositories for your scientific field” is almost cynical and changes nothing for the better. I think it would have been a more useful and clear-sighted way to discuss the problem with stakeholders within the research community first and to ensure that a repository or another solution is build up second, before banning supplementary material.
I want to conclude with one last quote of Maunsell’s Editorial: “We should remember that neuroscience thrived for generations without any online supplemental material.” …wow – that’s an oath of disclosure! …the world rotates as it always did, right? Internet? Online Access? Digital science? Forget it! Paper and Pencil – that thrived for generations, too!
photo: Niko Korte / pixelio.de