Show me the data! A step backwards by the Journal of Neuroscience

More and more researchers agree that more access is needed to the original data behind published research articles. Of course, the more general point is that not just the original data, but all materials needed to scrutinize the claims of a manuscript should be available.

The policy of the journal Science is:

After publication, all data necessary to understand, assess, and extend the conclusions of the manuscript must be available to any reader of Science… Large data sets with no appropriate approved repository must be housed as supporting online material at Science, or only when this is not possible, on an archived institutional Web site, provided a copy of the data is held in escrow at Science to ensure availability to readers.

There are many cases where aspects of the data cannot be made available, for example due to patient privacy requirements, and Science of course makes allowances for that.

But In contrast to Science‘s enlightened policy, the Journal of Neuroscience looks to have just taken a step backward. They announced that they will no longer allow any supplemental material to be submitted along with the main text of authors’ articles.

Supplemental materials were being used to include a broad array of things that help to interpret the content of an article. These things are really needed to increase the transparency of science. Still, I do sympathize a bit with the desire of J Neurosci to do away with them. Often they are used in a very annoying fashion. Authors sometimes put critical data analyses and experiments in the supplemental material, and as a reader it becomes really difficult to read an article when one has to switch between the often overly-concise main text and the sometimes poorly organized supplemental material. J Neurosci points out that evaluating these materials was often a significant burden on the reviewers. However, I don’t think that simply eliminating supplemental materials is an appropriate response.

Elimination of supplemental materials should be accompanied by a clear policy on how the information otherwise therein will be made available to readers, to ensure the integrity of science. The announcement does make a gesture in that direction, saying that authors should provide a weblink to information on their own site, and that perhaps the elimination of supplemental material will “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.” However, overall the announcement gives the impression that if anything, the recommendation that authors provide supporting data and material has been relaxed. Heather Piwowar has more.

J Neurosci should have accompanied this change with a statement that the expectation that authors fully back up their claims with public information is increasing, not decreasing!

In the longer term, I believe the solution to all this may come from more fundamental reform of how science is communicated. Ideally, the workings of a scientific enterprise and the progress being made should be visible even before formal publication. This is called Open science.

The development of better open science tools will obviate some of the concerns of the Journal of Neuroscience. Formal publication of an article will not be as big a step as it is now, where suddenly all of the materials associated with a scientific claim appear out of nowhere. Instead, there will be an electronic paper trail linking back to the data records created as the data were collected and the analyses were done. There are many reasons why currently scientists do not or cannot do such things, but those who can and are making the effort to do so should be applauded and supported.

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