Towards minimal reporting standards for life scientists

November 1st, 2018, David Mellor


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Transparency in reporting benefits scientific communication on many levels. While specific needs and expectations vary across fields, the effective use of research findings relies on the availability of core information about research materials, data, and analysis. These are the underlying principles that led to the design of the TOP guidelines, which outline a framework that over 1,000  journals and publishers have elected to follow. 

In September 2017, the second major TOP guidelines workshop hosted by the Center for Open Science led to a  position paper suggesting a standardized approach for reporting, provisionally entitled the TOP Statement. 

Based on discussions at that meeting and at the 2017 Peer Review Congress, in December 2017 we convened a working group of journal editors and experts to support this overall effort by developing a minimal set of reporting standards for research in the life sciences. This framework could both inform the TOP statement and serve in other contexts where better reporting can improve reproducibility. 

In this “minimal standards” working group, we aim to draw from the collective experience of journals implementing a range of different approaches designed to enhance reporting and reproducibility (e.g. STAR Methods), existing life science checklists (e.g. the Nature Research reporting summary), and results of recent meta-research studying the efficacy of such interventions (e.g. Macleod et al. 2017; Han et al. 2017); to devise a set of minimal expectations that journals could agree to ask their authors to meet.

An advantage of aligning on minimal standards is consistency in policies and expectations across journals, which is beneficial for authors as they prepare papers for publication and for reviewers as they assess them. We also hope that other major stakeholders engaged in the research cycle, including institutional review bodies and funders, will see the value of agreeing on this type of reporting standard as a minimal expectation, as broad-based endorsement from an early stage in the research life cycle would provide important support for overall adoption and implementation.  

The working group will provide three key deliverables:

  • A “minimal standards” framework setting out minimal expectations across four core areas of materials (including data and code), design, analysis and reporting (MDAR)
  • A “minimal standards” checklist intended to operationalize the framework by serving as an implementation tool to aid authors in complying with journal policies, and editors and reviewers in assessing reporting and compliance with policies
  • An “elaboration” document or user guide providing context for the “minimal standards” framework and checklist

While all three outputs are intended to provide tools to help journals, researchers and other stakeholders with adoption of the minimal standards framework, we do not intend to be prescriptive about the precise mechanism of implementation and we anticipate that in many cases they will be used as a yardstick within the context of an existing reporting system. Nevertheless, we hope these tools will provide a consolidated view to help raise reporting standards across the life sciences.

We anticipate completing draft versions of these tools by spring 2019.  We also hope to work with a wider group of journals, as well as funders, institutions, and researchers to gather feedback and seek consensus towards defining and applying these minimal standards.  As part of this feedback stage, we will conduct a “community pilot” involving interested journals to test application of the tools we provide within the context of their procedures and community. Editors or publishers who are interested in participating are encouraged to contact Veronique Kiermer and Sowmya Swaminathan for more information.

In the current working group, we have focused our efforts on life science papers because of extensive previous activity in this field in devising reporting standards for research and publication.  However, once the life science guidelines are in place we hope that we and others will be able to extend this effort to other areas of science and devise similar tools for other fields.  Ultimately, we believe that a shared understanding of expectations and clear information about experimental and analytical procedures have the potential to benefit many different areas of research as we all work towards greater transparency and the support that it provides for the progress of science.

We are posting this notification across multiple venues to maximize communication and outreach, to give as many people as possible an opportunity to influence our thinking.  We welcome comments and suggestions within the context of any of these posts or in other venues.  If you have additional questions about our work, would like informed of progress, or would like to volunteer to provide input, please contact Veronique Kiermer and Sowmya Swaminathan.

On behalf of the “minimal standards” working group:

Karen Chambers (Wiley)

Andy Collings (eLife)

Chris Graf (Wiley)

Veronique Kiermer (Public Library of Science; vkiermer@plos.org)

David Mellor (Center for Open Science)

Malcolm Macleod (University of Edinburgh)

Sowmya Swaminathan (Nature Research/Springer Nature; s.swaminathan@us.nature.com)

Deborah Sweet (Cell Press/Elsevier)

Valda Vinson (Science/AAAS)

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Towards minimal reporting standards for life scientists

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