“Enough is enough,” writes Christine Borowski, in a July 4th editorial published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM).
Borowski, the Executive Editor of JEM states that, effective immediately, only “essential” supplementary tables and figures will be accepted for publication.
Her rationale for a radical change in editorial policy was based on something many editors have experienced first-hand: online articles have quickly become “data dumps” for supplemental items.
The magnitude of these supplements burdens reviewers, costs authors precious time and resources creating them, and there is little evidence that supplements are used much by readers, writes Borowski. Without the size restrictions enforced with print publications, Borowski explains how the asymmetric power relationship between reviewer and author has led to the growth of supplemental files:
Why the increase in the prevalence of supplementary data? Reviewers frequently ask for it. Editors generally allow it. So authors are compelled to provide it, although some do so grudgingly. Of course, authors are also referees. Why the same individual would demand experiments as a referee that they might balk at as an author seems paradoxical.
In 2005, only four in 10 JEM articles were published with supplemental files. Now, all of them are, and the average number of supplemental items per paper has increased from 2.4 in 2005 to 5.9 in 2011. The first full article I looked at in the July 4th issue included 15 supplemental items (6 figures and 9 tables).
Supplemental files will now be limited to “essential” information, and limited to file formats not currently permissible for inclusion in the primary paper (e.g., videos and large datasets).
While authors are to abide by these policies, reviewers must understand them as well and curtail their demands for additional data and experiments. The intended purpose of the policy is to limit the growing demand on authors, reviewers and editors and speed up the publication of new findings.
Last summer, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience announced that it would no longer publish supplemental files, citing similar rationale. However, drawing the line on what kind of supplements were important enough for inclusion made enforcement impractical.