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Nanopublications and Mini-Monographs

What are these small platforms for publishing your research? How are they being used? Are they worth your time?

Scholarly publishing is motivated by two objectives: disseminating findings and receiving recognition for research. On the one hand, published work may educate other researchers, provide the groundwork for additional studies, and inspire professional collaborations. On the other hand, citations are an integral component of academic job applications, tenure reviews, and funding proposals, reflecting a scholar’s productivity and credibility. Achievement of the two goals is inhibited, however, by barriers to readership and authorship, including the overwhelming quantity of research output and the often slow pace of research. Recently, both the sciences and the humanities have taken literally small steps toward overcoming these obstacles: nanopublications and mini-monographs, respectively.


A nanopublication is defined as the smallest citable unit of scholarly output. Unlike either a traditional research article or raw data, this open access publication consists of only two main components: a statement of how two concepts are related (the assertion, or data) and the assertion’s origin (the provenance, or meta-data). The provenance encompasses attribution information (including the authorship, funding, and article or non-journal source) and supporting information (such as the background and methods). This content is encoded in a standardized way and is assigned a unique identification number.

Certain characteristics of nanopublications make data more easily searchable. The machine readability allows results from many different studies to be assessed together, permitting new analyses and reducing the need to manually comb through the growing number of databases and papers. The human-readable part helps a reader to identify relevant literature based on specific findings, rather than having to rely on potentially incomplete keyword search results and on skimming entire articles. Moreover, the unique identifier makes nanopublications citable, similar to the digital object identifier (DOI) of a typical paper. This property incentivizes data sharing by formally granting credit to the researcher. Despite these benefits, and although nanopublications were first discussed in 2009, platforms for distribution are still being developed.


A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education described the emerging phenomenon of mini-monographs. These publications are short e-books that are between a journal article and a traditional book in length. Mini-monographs are relatively quickly published compared with longer monographs but still undergo peer review. The imprint Stanford Briefs describes a mini-monograph as similar to a long essay focusing on “the essence of a topic” or an “open argument,” in contrast to more detailed work meant for an expert audience. Taken together, these features allow more rapid and broader dissemination of ideas, overcoming the extensive research and publication processes required for a typical monograph. As for nanopublications, the academic community is still developing its understanding of mini-monographs, including who the target authors and readers are and how this format should be weighted during hiring and tenure review.

These two modest forms of scholarly contribution and attribution fit into much larger trends. The value of research output beyond conventional published formats, such as blog posts and raw datasets, is being increasingly recognized. These “research products[subscription required] speed the sharing of findings by eliminating the need for a complete “story,” a specialized target audience, and a multistep publication process, which are the hallmarks of most full-length manuscripts and monographs. Credit for such eclectic types of scholarly contributions is facilitated by a new measure of impact known as altmetrics.

Consistent with these trends, both nanopublications and mini-monographs focus on a single assertion or argument and are accessible to a broader audience (the larger scientific or academic community). In contrast to traditional journal articles and full-length books, the content of these publications is not necessarily hypothesis driven (such as a genetic variant obtained in a large screen) or part of an ongoing dialog on a topic (such as a brief observation), respectively. Furthermore, as both publications are citable, they may be considered as valid academic contributions in applications for jobs, promotions, and grants. These two developments, however seemingly minor, thus have major implications for research sharing and attribution across academia.

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