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Open-access journal uncovers the intricacies of scientific research

03 Nov 2021 Sponsored by IOP Publishing

An innovative journal called IOP SciNotes allows researchers to share and discover novel methodologies, datasets and computer code, as well as preliminary results from small-scale studies

Rebecca Peer

Building useful datasets, devising novel experiments, and creating new computer programs are all critical elements of modern scientific research. Yet these fundamental building blocks of the scientific process are often buried away, either as add-on supplementary information to a broader research study or – worse still – hidden from view in someone’s private archives.

IOP SciNotes, an open-access journal introduced by IOP Publishing in 2019, aims to bring that valuable work into the light. Unlike traditional journals, it offers an outlet for publishing concise research notes that provide a rigorous explanation of a novel methodology, dataset or computer algorithm, as well as descriptions of pilot or small-scale studies that have yielded interesting results. “Having a citable, peer-reviewed, and freely available source of this information allows other researchers to build on previous work, improve experimental approaches, and use these important research outputs to enrich their own scientific endeavour,” comments Rebecca Peer, one of the journal’s executive editorial board members.

Peer, who specializes in civil systems engineering at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, believes that sharing the inner workings of an academic project will ultimately improve the quality of research. For a start, making this information more accessible can allow other scientists to repeat and refine experimental techniques, improving the rigour and robustness of a new research approach. “We need to be explicit about the methodologies and datasets we develop for our work, as well as the results we come up with along the way,” she says. “It’s all part of good science to ensure that our work is transparent and repeatable.”

Accelerating scientific progress

With a word limit of 2500 words and a focus on publishing work with a specific outcome, Peer also believes that IOP SciNotes has the capacity to accelerate scientific progress. “It takes time to collect enough results to publish a complete research study,” she says. “In the meantime someone working on a related issue might really benefit from having access to information about a novel dataset or methodology, or some preliminary findings from a pilot-scale project.” Rapid publication of early results is particularly important in fast-moving fields, she says, when large numbers of scientists may be tackling similar research questions from different angles.

Emily Grubert

Emily Grubert, a civil engineer and environmental sociologist at Georgia Tech in the US, agrees that the journal can play a vital role in helping researchers to discover interesting results and datasets, and to understand what they mean and how they can be used. “Sometimes a dataset might be posted to a repository with a DOI on it, but you don’t get the discussion of what the data is, or the methods that were used to collect and manipulate it,” she explains. “Publishing that information in SciNotes allows researchers to find methods and datasets they didn’t know existed, and the extra context makes the dataset much more useful in the longer term.”

Grubert has already published two articles in IOP SciNotes. The first one highlighted a dataset analysing the capacity and efficiency of US power plants, which she had assembled for several different research projects. While it took a lot of time and effort to build the dataset, it wasn’t associated with one particular research output that would eventually have been presented in a traditional journal publication. “SciNotes enabled me to publish the dataset along with a short but direct description of what it is and why it is important,” she explains. “Otherwise, it would probably not have been published, and the dataset would have been very difficult for someone else to discover.”

All the information in IOP SciNotes is published on an open-access basis, which is crucial for making novel methods and approaches more available to more researchers. Peer says that these intricacies of the research process are often relegated to appear as supplementary information to a larger study, which generally does not receive the same attention or scrutiny as the main publication. “SciNotes allows researchers to cite a specific piece of work and give it the light it deserves,” she says. “It’s the perfect outlet for communicating the details of this supporting work to the wider research community.”

The journal also offers a valuable forum for publishing the results from small-scale or pilot projects, particularly for young scientists who are just starting out on their careers. For Grubert’s second article, for example, she worked with one of her undergraduate students to describe a model he had developed for calculating and comparing the fuel costs of gasoline and electric vehicles in the US. “It might have taken another year or so of research to gather enough information for a full journal article, but he was ready to put together 2500 words on what the model is, why he built it, and what it could be used for,” she explains. “He was thrilled to be able to publish something without a multi-year time commitment, and I was thrilled because he did a really nice piece of work that other researchers might find useful.”

Academic stamp of approval

While IOP SciNotes enables rapid publication of specific research results, all the information contained in the journal is fully peer reviewed – unlike similar work that might get posted to data repositories or preprint servers. That academic stamp of approval ensures that the information contained in the article is useful and reliable, and Grubert says that the referees for her two papers provided valuable feedback that improved the quality of the finished publications. “The peer-review process was friendly and constructive, and in both cases it elevated the quality of the paper.”

Like other titles owned by IOP Publishing, IOP SciNotes operates double-anonymous peer review, which means that referees are not given any information about the authors of the work. This approach, which has been adopted to help eliminate bias in scholarly publishing, has proved particularly popular with early-career researchers and those from geographic regions that are not well represented in the scientific literature. “Knowing who people are and where they’re from has no relevance on the quality of the research,” comments Peer. “There’s not that many journals where you can submit a dataset or preliminary results and get a double-blind peer-reviewed citation.”

While Peer and Grubert are both interested in environmental issues, IOP SciNotes has a broad reach that extends across engineering, computation, and the biomedical and physical sciences. That’s a key advantage, believes Peer, for researchers who are tackling some of the biggest research questions of our day, such as climate change and sustainability. “There is some really interesting transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research that’s going on right now, especially when we start to think about the intersection of human and natural systems,” she comments. “Datasets or preliminary results published by ecologists, for example, could be useful for food scientists, environmental engineers  and many other research areas.”

Peer cites the example of an article published in IOP SciNotes that analysed the socio-economic development of the coal industry in India. “That dataset could inform studies across so many different fields, all the way from engineering to social science,” she says. “It has been downloaded more than 6000 times since it was published earlier this year, which clearly demonstrates its value to the research community.”

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