Single Figure (nano)publications, reddit AMAs and other new approaches to research reporting

I recently received two emails each with a subject line new approaches to research reporting. The traditional 350 year-old model of the (scientific) journal is undergoing upheavals at the moment with the introduction of APCs (article processing charges), a refereeing crisis and much more. Some argue that brand new thinking is now required. Here are two such innovations (and I leave you to judge whether that last word should have an appended ?).

To set the scene for the first, I will quote the abstract: “The single figure publication is a novel, efficient format by which to communicate scholarly advances. It will serve as a forerunner of the nano-publication, a modular unit of information critical for machine-driven data aggregation and knowledge integration[cite]10.12688/f1000research.6742.1[/cite] The kernel of this suggestion is (again I quote) “We offer the idea of the micro-publication unit, the single figure publication (SFP), to provide scholars with a real-world, manageable method to inform research.” I was struck by the overlap between this suggestion and the one you may find on many of the posts on this blog, where what I refer to as FAIR Data is assigned a digital object identifier (DOI) and included in the citation lists at the end of the post. The key phrase in the above abstract is machine-driven data aggregation and knowledge, although the article does not really go into any mechanisms for easily achieving this. It is my argument that the act of assigning a DOI carries with it the association that there is machine searchable metadata which can be retrieved and used for the aggregation and knowledge mining. The authors of this article, Do and Mobley, advocate adoption of nanopublications defined by inclusion of just a single figure (notably, not a table of results!) and some accompanying context which they claim would reduce the unit of publication to a more tractable size. This does raise the question of whether science needs more publications (in chemistry alone there are said to be more than a million published each year) or whether we should instead be concentrating our efforts on improving the data side of things by increasing its semantic content and formalising its structures, its preservation and curation. I certainly argue that far too little effort has been poured into these latter activities. You only have to look at the typical SI (supporting information) associated with many chemistry articles to realise that in many cases they are still hardly fit for purpose. There is one concept introduced by Do and Mobley that also deserves mention. Their nanopublications are structured to be read by machines, not people. They will therefore not be refereed by people (my inference). They do not really discuss how else the quality will be assessed, but of course if you treat their nanopublication as essentially FAIR data, then it does become possible to develop methods of machine refereeing.

The second email alerted me to an article[cite]10.15200/winn.143871.12809[/cite] in the Winnower, a forum that offers a bridge between “traditional scholarly publishing tools to traditional and non-traditional scholarly outputs—because scholarly communication doesn’t just happen in scholarly journals“. Here, the concept of scholarly communication is extended to the New Reddit Journal of Science and introduces the concept pioneered by reddit of the AMA, or “ask me anything” environment. I occasionally publish some of the posts on this blog to the Winnower, receiving in return the increasingly ubiquitous DOI. I have also occasionally quoted these DOIs in articles submitted to conventional chemistry journals. What we see now is the propagation of a Winnower DOI on to e.g. where anyone can post a question related to the original research reporting. I must state that I do have some reservations about this. Whilst it is likely that the majority of traditional scholarly reporting is likely to receive no AMAs (just as a very high proportion of research articles attract few if any citations in other articles over a period of decades), it is also likely that the quality of posted AMAs may turn out to be very low. At which point the original researcher has to make a judgement as to whether to devote any of their increasingly precious and fragmented time to answering them. And if few if any answers are posted in response to an AMA, the system seems unlikely to flourish.

But what we see here are two serious attempts to develop new approaches to research reporting, and not doubt others will emerge. To quote Yogi Berra, the future is not what it used to be.

Anyone can also post to this blog to ask similar questions. But note that associating an ORCID with such comments is highly recommended. I do not think that reddit currently supports ORCID, but  I would argue if the intent is serious, it certainly should.

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