Dr Mike J. Smith is Editor-in-Chief of the Taylor & Francis publication, Journal of Maps. He has previously written for Editor Resources to reflect on his career as a journal editor, and also to share his experiences of moving to open access. On this occasion, we asked Dr Smith to advise other editors on how best to handle supplementary material during the editorial process.
Scholarly journals are about communication – the communication of opinions, of ideas, of results, of recommendations. They are the fruits of research labour and whilst we might use them as a tally for tenure, they are not an end in and of themselves. They are the beginning – the release of new ideas into the world spawns their active use, reimplementation and “mashup” and metamorphosis into something new. Scholarly journals are, therefore, more than just communication; it is as much about enabling research to build on the ideas of others and present all that they need in order to achieve that. In fact, I’d argue that journal articles should be short and sweet – effectively and efficiently communicating all that is essential to know about a topic, with authors using supplementary materials to present everything else that is required to more fully understand and replicate the work if required. Think TED talk, rather than two-hour lecture – you are more likely to communicate your idea meaning others can then act upon it.
The benefit of using supplementary materials is that the content follows the article meaning that it is easy for the reader to access at the point of consumption. Content that might have sat in an Appendix is an obvious candidate, along with material such as questionnaires, photos, figures or tabular data that expound on the subject matter but are not essential for its communication. But remember that supplementary material is digital which means it can encompass the full realm of multimedia. Video, audio and interactive media are all possible and permissible. And – the elephant in the room – data. Let’s take a look at these in turn.
- A numerical modeller writes the detail about a method used. It is tangential to the core paper with generic detail available in text books, however its inclusion allows easy replication of the research by others.
- A teaching and learning group uses an online questionnaire and focus group methodology to assess the efficacy of an intervention. The exact wording can be reviewed by others.
- A geologist includes photos of thin sections and samples from their study area. Much greater detail can be assessed by readers.
- An historian incorporates both transcripts and the original voice recording of an interviewee whose evidence is then used within the context of past events. The detail of the original source and its interpretation can be understood.
- An ecologist presents a video fly through of predictions for the impact of forest clearance in a region. Policy makers can immediately understand the outcomes of allowing planning permission.
- A hospital consultant includes interactive 3D reconstructions of a patient’s organ pre and post-surgery. The success of a new procedure can be reviewed.
Data is perhaps the one area that creates confusion with supplementary materials because there are a large number of institutional and subject specific repositories that accept their deposition. Authors with Taylor & Francis face two choices: depositing data in a third-party repository (such as an institutional repository or one of several general data repositories) or supplying smaller data sets or snippets of data as supplementary materials via the journal submission process. In either case, it is recommended that the author cite the data to ensure readers can easily and quickly access it. The selection of the former solution is likely a better choice when the author wishes to associate the article with a large data set. In this case, authors are encouraged to deposit their data with a repository that mints a DOI to allow for proper citation by the authors and others. Where authors wish to associate a smaller data set or a small number of images, the journal submission system is well suited to manage this.
It should be remembered that supplementary materials are not intended to provide a data set in its entirety, but to augment the readers’ experience. Where data provides this then, as an editor, I would include it. For example, at the Journal of Maps we might have a geologist who has mapped some phenomena using satellite imagery. We would link to an archive for the original imagery, but use supplementary materials to provide access to the mapping the author has produced. It is unique, bespoke, adds value and is genuinely useful to the reader.
Whilst the technical aspects of delivering supplementary materials is in the hands of the publisher, the formats that they are delivered in are decided in conjunction with the editor. That is to say they must be accessible to future generations – for the actual article itself, journals use PDF-A to achieve this. As an editor, make sure you choose well supported file formats and, ideally, open. For some data types this is easy to achieve: text (TXT, DOCX, ODT), spreadsheets (CSV, XLSX, ODS), images (TIF, JPG), audio (MP3), video (MP4) and archives (ZIP). For other types this may be more difficult (e.g. 3D, spatial, database). At the Journal of Maps, one area of difficulty has been with mapping websites that have been developed – we are not in a position to archive them so, in this instance, we require the authors to present a short video demonstrating the functionality of the site. It is the next best option.
Having reviewed the why, the what and the how of supplementary materials, the next step if you are considering their use is to document what supplementary materials your journal has already published and then begin to assess what authors and readers might want to lodge with you. A good way to promote this is through a special issue that makes extensive use of supplementary materials – for example at the Journal of Maps we produced an issue based entirely upon 3D models.