Sunday, August 19, 2007

Your figures are my leftovers.

It's that time again. Time to catch up on reading and re-reading, time to decide what's believable, what's admirable, and what's trash.

Although the trend these days in journals like Cell is towards 6-8 Figures + 5-10 Supplemental Figures, with the number of Supplemental pieces ever-increasing, a lot of it is stuff the likes of which I have in my notebook but would never show the light of day.

As in, I thought it was important enough to do, but not important enough to reproduce at publication quality.

In my book, that means I won't be publishing it.

So why does everyone else?

Q: Does it help to overwhelm the reviewers by sheer quantity?
A: Yes, it helps get papers published that wouldn't otherwise be published.

Q: Do the additional data actually support their point?
A: Not usually. In fact, usually the opposite.

Where supplemental data used to mean, "stuff we did just in case" or "negative results but we want to show that we tried", now it means "stuff that doesn't fit with our model but we don't want to highlight that fact" and "lower quality figures and please don't look too closely at them or you'll notice that".

I understand the temptation to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, but what worries me most is the trend toward putting critical control experiments in supplemental, as if they're not important because they're not interesting enough.

One reason science is not fiction is just this:
We don't ever just take your word for it. You have to show the data.

The boring controls are always the most important, because without those, I don't care what nifty new result you got with your nifty new technology.

When you pile stuff up high and trumpet it to the heavens, but the underpinnings are built on a house of cards, it's going to fall down.

Is this what reviewers are coming to expect, that you should include your entire notebook as Supplementary Figures but they aren't going to examine it with as critical an eye as they do the Main Figures?

Huh?? I don't get it. Seems like a waste of everybody's time and a recipe for everyone to be embarrassed.

Maybe this is just one of those weird evolutionary cast-offs on the way to a fully internet-accessible database in the sky where everyone shares all data and science actually progresses at a much faster rate.

Like the first fish that tried to crawl out of the ocean (or whatever it was), maybe this is just an early mutated version of what's coming, and the progeny will be fit to survive.

I sure hope so.


At 5:41 PM, Anonymous whimple said...

I see two useful purposes to supplemental data.
1) detailed methods. Science etc. used to be notorious for essentially unreproducible work. You had to wait for the "methods paper" in another journal.
2) detailed tables of data. the archetype would be atomic coordinates for crystal structures.
I doubt very much that supplemental data has any effect at all on the opinions of the reviewers.

At 4:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, having just had a paper accepted with 6 supp figures (yay!), there's also "stuff I did solely because nobody else will ever go to the trouble of doing because they'll assume I'm working on it."

At 7:07 PM, Blogger Mad Hatter said...

Sometimes it's because of persnickety reviewers that the kitchen sink has to be thrown in!


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