Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been catching up on my science reading, and that’s reminded me just how much I hate it when journal articles refer to supplemental materials. I’m not bothered when tables that used to go in what we old-timers once called appendices wind up in supplemental materials: very few people want to read the descriptions of 2,000 bacterial strains, for instance.
But that’s not what most supplemental materials are, or how they arose (we’ll get to that in a bit). Not only is it a hassle to download an article, only to realize that there’s a supplement you need and isn’t readily available (e.g., you’re not at the office, so the institutional subscription doesn’t work), but, more importantly, it leads to poor writing.
As far as I can tell, the glamour mags, such as Science and Nature, first implemented supplemental methods. Given their severe page limitations, they began moving methods sections to online-only supplements (never mind that for a significant fraction of papers, the only thing I’m interested in is the methods).
Then they, and other journals, rather than either editing articles to shorter lengths or changing their publication format to meet scientific needs, began adding results and data to the supplements. This is bad for two reasons. First, if the data are important, then they belong in the paper. If not, then cut that section. You’re not supposed to communicate every result, only the ones that matter. Second, if these data are only for the ‘specialists’, then you probably can’t answer their specific questions in a supplemental section–they’ll want the actual data (to a few journals’ credit, they actual post data in supplements). Either the supplement belongs in the article, or it’s superfluous. Articles are not ftp sites and aren’t supposed to be data barfs.
So what does online only publishing have to do with anything? One of the reasons I like the PLoS journals is that they don’t really have page limits because there are no printing costs. Some papers are very short; some are over twenty pages long. There’s also plenty of space for figures. When the editing process works (and it doesn’t always), the article is as long as it needs to be.
And that’s how it should be: the communication needs of scientists should dictate length, not journals’ printing policies.