Elsevier redefines online articles

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The journal Cell is leading a push to redefine how peer-reviewed articles are accessed and used online. As Emilie Marcus, editor in chief of Cell Press, a division of Elsevier, explained, 'A lot has happened to put information online but not much has really been done with the articles themselves. They are still basically online versions of the print journals.'

This isn’t ideal, she believes. Even at the simplest level, print journals are generally in portrait format but computer displays are generally orientated the other way around. Beyond that, information in print articles works well presented in a linear way, where readers can easily skim or turn pages to reach the sections of articles that they are most interested in. Electronically, however, users are more familiar with tabs and menus and drilling down into information in different levels of detail.

Having identified the potential problems, Marcus began to speak about this with some of the scientists she works with on a day-to-day basis. 'I got great enthusiasm from the scientists for even asking the question,' she said. 'One of the main comments was about the supplementary information. Sometimes the often-unstructured supplementary information is much longer than the article itself and it can seem to be the case of the tail wagging the dog.'

Following these discussions, Marcus and colleagues developed prototypes based on two articles from previous issues of the journal. Instead of the traditional linear approach, these prototypes are organised with a series of tabs. The abstract tab has been enhanced to include an image (to make a so-called ‘graphical abstract’) and bullet points summarising the highlights from the article. Figures and references can be found in their appropriate places within each section but also have their own tabs.

Supplementary information and figures is also included within the text at a relevant point when users drill down into it. For example, the ‘experimental’ section in one of the prototypes offers the options of ‘basic view’ or ‘extended view’. The ‘basic view’ is what the experimental section within the print journal includes, while the ‘extended view’ has been enhanced throughout with more detailed procedural information from the supplementary information.

The Cell team has tested these prototypes with some of the scientists that the journal works with and has received positive feedback, according to Marcus. The next stage is to get feedback from the wider community. The prototypes can be accessed from the links below and the team welcomes comments. 'I hope that the prototypes trigger people to consider this question,' said Marcus. 'When people really think about this I’m sure that other ideas will come up.'

It won’t all be change though. At the moment there are no plans to change the way that the articles appear in print. What’s more, there will still be a requirement for a printer-friendly PDF of each article for readers who like to print out articles to read them.

The aim is to launch the new approach at the end of this year or early next year. Following this, Marcus and her team anticipate working closely with scientists during a transition period to help them prepare articles in an appropriate way for the new format. She does not see this as a challenge in the longer term though: 'authors are very used to a long list of requirements from publishers. We don’t think it will be any more work than before, just different,' she explained. Following this project with Cell, Elsevier plans to roll out the new approach across all its journals.