In a F1000 Research editorial called Single Figure Publications: Towards a novel alternative format for scholarly communication, Long Do and William Mobley of the University of California San Diego Department of Neuroscience presented a concept called single figure publications. They aren’t proposing a synonym for the nanopublication concept, which they contend has several components in its traditionally-proposed structure that make it unsustainable and which can potentially affect the ability of researchers to validate the data utilized. Rather than having the top-down approach of nanopublications, the single figure publication, or SFP, would take a “bottoms-up” approach, or what some might call a revised nanopublication structure. Do and Mobley write, “The SFP, consisting of a figure, the legend, the Material and Methods section, and an optional Results/Discussion section, reduces the unit of publication to a more tractable size. Importantly, it results in a markedly decreased time from data generation to publication.”

In his iPhylo blog, Dr. Roderic Page, Professor of Taxonomy at University of Glasgow, in a post entitled Nanopublications and annotation: a role for the Biodiversity Data Journal?, writes, “Imagine if we have even shorter papers that are essentially a series of statements of fact, or assertions (linked to supporting evidence). These could potentially be papers that annotated and/or clarified data in an external database, such as GBIF.”

The GBIF, or Global Biodiversity Information Facility, is a publicly-funded, international open data portal with over 500 million records freely accessible to researchers worldwide. Using standardized protocols when publishing their data, individual and corporate researchers contribute to this global pool that aims to catalog and structure information in all fields of life science.

Using this collection as a starting point in his example, Dr. Page continues: “For example, let’s imagine we find two names in GBIF that GBIF treats as being different taxa, but a recent publication asserts are actually synonyms. We could make that information machine readable (say, using Darwin Core Archive format), link it to the source(s) of the assertion (i.e., the DOI of the paper making the synonymy), then publish that as a paper. As the Darwin Core Archive is harvested by GBIF, GBIF then has access to that information, and when the next taxonomic indexing occurs it can make use of that information.”

In the blog post Single Figure (nano)publications, reddit AMAs and other new approaches to research reporting, Imperial College London computational chemistry professor Dr. Henry Rzepa writes, “The authors of this article, Do and Mobley, advocate adoption of nanopublications defined by inclusion of just a single figure (notably, not a table of results!) and some accompanying context which they claim would reduce the unit of publication to a more tractable size.”

Dr. Rzepa reflects on whether such chunk publishing would benefit or muddle what he notes is already an overload of published material for researchers to sift through. He writes, “This does raise the question of whether science needs more publications (in chemistry alone there are said to be more than a million published each year) or whether we should instead be concentrating our efforts on improving the data side of things by increasing its semantic content and formalising its structures, its preservation and curation. I certainly argue that far too little effort has been poured into these latter activities.”

Arguably, some researchers have found data entry errors in databases like GBIF. In the post Do you trust GBIF or the revising author? in the blog Rove Beetle Musings, Dr. Stylianos Chatzimanolis notes an interesting error found in the database. “Of course this is obviously a data entry error and I do not mean to pile dirt on my friends at SEMC,” he writes. “However, the problem is this: If I am writing a paper on the distributions of animals (see previous post), I will probably not check the revision of the genus and I will assume that the record is correct.”

In Nanopublications and annotation: a role for the Biodiversity Data Journal?, Dr. Page notes that single figure publications has some very practical advantages over traditional route publishing. He writes, “One reason for having these “micropublications” is that sometimes resolving an issue in a dataset can take some time. I’ve often found errors in databases and have ended up spending a couple of hours finding names, literature, etc. to figure out what is going on. As fun as that is, in a sense it’s effort that is wasted if it’s not made more widely available. But if I can wrap that couple of hours scholarship into a citable unit, publish it, and have it harvested and incorporated into, say, GBIF, then the whole exercise seems much more rewarding.”

Do and Mobley acknowledge that the proposed concept does have its challenges, but believe its successful implementation would be worth the efforts to develop a sustainable platform for the single figure publication. They write, “We view the SFP as a valuable and necessary part of the infrastructure required to achieve the goals of scholarly communication. While the traditional format of journal articles will continue to be used to tell the important ‘stories’ of scientific journeys, more nimble, modular units of communication are needed, starting with SFPs. The emergence of additional tools that help structure content while authoring SFPs will facilitate the creation of nano-publications, thus allowing us to put machines to work in the service of informing and enhancing our science.”

What do you think of the prospect of single figure publishing or ‘bottoms-up’ nanopublishing? If there were sufficient standards and protocols in place for classification and discovery, would it benefit your research, or your overall discipline, to have access to data in this format? How do you think this might impact the scholarly publishing landscape in terms of research impact, the publish-or-perish environments, and value measurements of the scholarly record? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.