Publishing incrementally – micropublications

Looking back and looking forward

I recently received a reminder that it was my 13th anniversary of joining Twitter. I signed up to Twitter as a result of attending the Science Blogging conference in London in 2008 where I heard how useful it could be. I’d heard about Twitter previously, but was not persuaded it would be useful to me.  Well, it has proved enormously useful over the years.

It was at that event I also first heard about Open Notebook Science – an idea that blew my mind.  It still feels pretty radical to consider sharing all your research results as they are generated, and not many researchers have followed this path. Maybe it’s still something for the future.

A report produced in 2019 by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI envisioned what the world of research will look like in 2029. They reviewed the literature and interviewed futurists, research funders, publishers, technology experts and researchers. The report makes interesting reading, with a number of possible scenarios outlined.

I don’t think it is any surprise that one of the conclusions about research outputs was that “the article structure is evolving and new forms will become the norm”.  But it’s instructive to note that many of their respondents expected that articles would become further atomized, breaking into standalone elements.

Science Matters

Ten years after I learnt about open notebooks, a publisher called Science Matters came to give a talk at my institute. Someone working for them had earlier been a postdoc with one of our researchers and he’d arranged for her to visit. Science Matters  at that time published two journals:

Instead of publishing stories, Matters and Matters Select publish single, validated observations, thus highlighting the fundamental unit of scientific progress – the observation.

After the talk I did discuss whether the institute should sign an agreement with Science Matters for unlimited publishing by our researcher. I decided against it. I couldn’t justify the upfront costs without clear evidence that this new publishing platform was something our researchers would be motivated to use. Also, the costs of publishing five single-observation micropublications seemed to work out higher than those of publishing one regular paper with five observations.

Sadly the Science Matters’ website has now disappeared from view and is only available on the Wayback Machine. Their Twitter account still exists but is silent.

Micropublications

Learning about Science Matters was my first introduction to what I now know to be micropublications. I’ve since seen other examples of micropublications – for instance Flashpub, Experimental Results (from Cambridge University Press) and microPublication Biology. These micropublication platforms are another approach to the early sharing of research results. They are less radical than open notebooks but still represent a bold move.  They will soon be joined by the new Octopus platform.

As I’ve explored the world of micropublications I have observed that the term ‘micropublishing’ seems to have a variety of meanings – see this Wikipedia entry – but I’m using the term ‘micropublication’ as it seems to be reasonably well understood.

A micropublication, also called a Single Figure Publication, is “a peer-reviewed report of findings from a single experiment”. You could say that micropublications are the ultimate in salami slicing – the least publishable unit of research.

Another term I’ve seen is ’nanopublication’ – basically a single statement such as “misexpression of DUX4-fl, even at extremely low level, can recapitulate the phenotype observed in FSHD patients in a vertebrate model” expressed in a formalised way.  For me this rather stretches the concept of what is a publication, but it seems to be a term used in the semantic web community.  A recent article by Fabio Giachelle, Dennis Dosso, Gianmaria Silvello provides a useful introduction to nanopublications in life sciences.

In theory

In a thorough exposition in 2014 Tim Clark, Paolo Ciccarese & Carole Goble laid out their ‘micropublications semantic metadata model’:

The micropublications model is adapted to the Web, and designed for (a) representing the key arguments and evidence in scientific articles, and (b) supporting the “layering” of annotations and various useful formalizations upon the full text paper.

The micropublication approach goes beyond statements and their provenance, proposing a richer model in order to account for a more complete and broadly useful view of scientific argument and evidence, beyond that of simple assertions, or assertions supported only by literature references.

This is a re-imagining of research outputs for the 21st century, designing them to build into a corpus of knowledge that is fully formalised and evidenced. It is quite a theoretical vision of a micropublication and I am not sure to what extent current micropublication platforms have been guided by this kind of theoretical approach.

In practice

A more pragmatic vision from Long Do and William Mobley in 2015 describes the Single Figure Publication (SFP) as a more manageable method to inform research. They define an SFP as:

consisting of a figure, the legend, the Material and Methods section, and an optional Results/Discussion section, reduc[ing] the unit of publication to a more tractable size. Importantly, it results in a markedly decreased time from data generation to publication. As such, SFPs represent a new means by which to communicate scientific research.

They also look towards a more structured corpus of scientific literature:

It will serve as a forerunner of the nanopublication, a modular unit of information critical for machine-driven data aggregation and knowledge integration.

Adoption

What will it take to see a large-scale adoption of single-figure publishing? Will researchers see micropublications as a quicker and more manageable way to keep informed about new results?  Or will they see them as a new fad in publishing that only ‘publishing types’ are talking about?

Richard Sever (co-founder of bioRxiv) at a recent meeting suggested that the latter was the case and said that he saw no evidence of strong interest from researchers in publishing single-figure publications.  Indeed many researchers are not aware of what exactly SFPs or micropublications are.

On the other hand, if ten years ago you had asked a typical biomedical researcher what they thought about preprints then I suspect you would have received a pretty blank (at best) or negative (at worst) response.

Perhaps SFPs will be mainstream ten years from now, whether on new publishing platforms or in existing journals.

Open Research London – 29 September 2021

If you want to learn more about micropublications, then you can register for a virtual event organised by Open Research London on Wed 29 Sept 2021, 3pm – 4.30pm (BST).

Titled “Micropublications: publishing science results piece by piece”, it will be chaired by Michael Markle, publishing director of F1000Research, with the following speakers:

  • Kaveh Bazargan, Director, River Valley Technologies
  • Paul Sternberg, Professor of Biology, Caltech; Editor-in-chief, microPublication Biology
  • Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge; creator of Octopus.
  • Nate Jacobs, Chief Executive Officer, flashPub Inc.
  • Michael Nevels, Reader in Virology, University of St Andrews; Chief editor, Life sciences, Experimental Results

Register via this Eventbrite page.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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