Supplemental data files published alongside research articles are now common features in online medical journals. At the same time, online commenting has become a rare event, and several prominent journals have shut down the feature entirely, a new study of medical journals reports.
The article, “Use of the Internet by Print Medical Journals in 2003 to 2009: A Longitudinal Observational Study,” by David Schriger and others, appears in the February issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
Tracking a cohort of 138 high-impact medical journals (both general and clinical specialty titles) over a period of seven years, Schriger reports that the number of articles with supplemental files grew from 7% in 2003 to 25% in 2009, largely in part to the inclusion of additional tables and figures. For some journals, like Cancer Research, more than 70% of articles appeared with supplemental material in 2009. And while other types of media (like audio, video, datasets, and protocols) are still rare, they are appearing more frequently over time.
Not all journals welcome the trend to include more and more supplemental data, however. Last year, the Journal of Neuroscience announced it was ending their policy to include supplemental files, citing that the trend put too much burden on peer-reviewers and slowed down the publication process.
In contrast to the trend to support and publish more supplemental data, journals that had implemented rapid response — a feature, which allows readers to post comments alongside articles — are showing no growth in participation. Only 18% of articles published in journals that provide the feature include any comments, and if they did, their numbers are low — 2 on average, Schriger reports.
Three journals (BMJ, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and Annals of Internal Medicine) buck the trend, with 50% or more articles receiving at least one online comment; however, five journals (Lancet, Gut, Thorax, Pediatric Research, and Respiratory Research) subsequently dropped the rapid response feature not long after implementation, Schriger writes. Realizing that online comments were being dominated by a small group of vocal “bores,” motivated by self-aggrandizement and extreme prejudice, BMJ implemented strict oversight of its rapid response feature in 2005.
With some notable exceptions, the expected raucous debate over most medical research has been deafeningly quiet. If rapid response speeds up the process of communication and frees up additional space that was limited in print journals to formal letters to the editor, Schriger maintains, why have most medical journals failed to successfully adopt this feature?
The answer that many of us keep returning to, in order to explain why most scientists eschew Web 2.o, social networks, science blogging, open review, and post-publication review, is that authors gain very little professionally from online commenting. Schriger explains,
The medical community may not be excited about routinely participating in post-publication review because of lack of interest, qualification, or time. Perhaps another factor is that rapid responses, unlike printed letters, are not indexed on PubMed. They are thus not considered to be “real” publications and do not contribute to the assessment of an individual’s output.
Until the embedded cultures of science change and start rewarding public dialog, it is naive to believe that scientists just need more time to feel comfortable with public debate. Culture always trumps technology, yet there are real consequences to the state of scientific knowledge — and more importantly, public welfare — when scientists actively avoid public debate. Schriger maintains,
This lack of support for the rapid response feature is disappointing. It may suggest that readers of research articles are accepting articles at face value despite considerable evidence of widespread deficiencies of publications.
In defense, could Schriger be asking too much from the Internet? From a production standpoint, the Internet has greatly sped up the publishing process. From a distribution standpoint, the Internet provides far more access than what print could achieve. Its expansive space has allowed additional text, tables, figures, datasets, videos, and simulations to be published alongside primary articles. Does it also need to transform articles into active social media?
All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? — Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”
Like ranting about what the Romans ever did for the people of Judea, is it possible that we’re expecting too much from online journals?