Guidelines for algorithms and software in Nature Methods

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Feb 27, 2014
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A large proportion of original research published in Nature Methods relies to varying degress on custom algorithms and software developed by the authors. Here we provide guidance on our relevant material sharing and reporting policies.

Nature Methods first outlined our material sharing and reporting standards for algorithms and software in a March 2007 Editorial. Now, after seven years of experience applying those policies we updated and expanded on them in our March 2014 Editorial. On this page we provide more detailed guidelines for authors submitting manuscripts containing unpublished algorithms and software they created. We are posting this information here because we’d like these guidelines to evolve and we want input from our communities on how they think this should happen. Please comment below and let us know your thoughts. We will update this document as our policies change.

Manuscripts published in Nature Methods include methods and tools in which algorithms and software represent an increasingly important methodological component. However, the degree to which they are central to the reported methodology can vary considerably. The algorithm or tool may be the entire motivation for publishing the work or it may be ancillary to it. Additionally, the methodology may be a novel algorithm of value in and of itself but a coded implementation is still necessary for the authors to show that it works as expected. Finally, the software tool may implement existing algorithms in a user-friendly form to deliver high value functionality of substantial general interest. Because of this wide variety it is inappropriate to enforce one-size-fits-all standards for algorithms and software reported in Nature Methods. The guidelines below represent our current editorial position on software reporting and release.

Client-side Software
This is software that is installed and used on a personal computer and not intended to be accessed remotely as a web service. It can be entirely stand-alone on a commonly available operating system (Windows, Mac OS X, or *nix) or can require the user to have a popular software platform installed (MATLAB or LabVIEW). In all cases, but particularly when using MATLAB or LabVIEW, all platform versions and software dependencies must be detailed in the supplied documentation.

At Submission

  • If the custom algorithm/software is central to the method and has not been reported previously in a published research paper it must be supplied by the authors in a usable form including one or more of the following.
    1. Source code
    2. Complete pseudocode
    3. Full mathematical description of the algorithm
    4. Compiled standalone software

    We strongly urge that full source code be provided. A compiled executable alone is not sufficient but may be required if the tool is intended to be of wide general use. Final acceptable forms of release of the algorithm, software and code will be determined by the editor after consultation with referees. This decision will be influenced by the editorial motivation for publishing the work (i.e. high novelty, satisfies wide general need, etc).

  • If the software is ancillary to the methodology being reported or is a routine implementation of obvious processes, such as microscope control software or analyses that are otherwise adequately described, the software need not be supplied to reviewers at submission but final release requirements may change in the course of the review process.
  • Supplied source code or software must be accompanied by documentation sufficient for a typical user to compile, install and use the software. Depending on the nature of the software tool, how central it is to the manuscript and our editorial motivation for considering the work, the minimum documentation may be a simple readme file or a full manual in PDF format.
  • If appropriate, sample data known to work on the software should be provided along with the expected output. Referees are encouraged to try and use the tool to analyze their own data.
  • The software and associated files may be supplied for reviewers as either:
    1. A single Supplementary Software zip file up to 200 MB in size
    2. Four DVDs to be mailed to the reviewers.
  • Any restrictions on the availability of software or code used to implement novel algorithms must be specified at the time of submission. Editors will decide whether any restrictions are acceptable in consultation with the reviewers. If some restrictions are deemed acceptable, they must be clearly explained in the methods section of the manuscript. Authors must supply all information needed for the reviewers to properly evaluate the software or code. If the motivation of the submitted manuscript is to provide a useful tool, rather than report a new algorithmic development, there should be no substantial restrictions on software or code availability.
  • We encourage authors to provide a license with the software or code.
  • A narrative description of key algorithmic components should be provided in the main text. Extensive equations, pseudocode or snippets of source code should be confined to the Online Methods or a Supplementary Note.

At Acceptance

  • If the software is central to the methodology and non-obvious, the source code should be provided in a Supplementary Software zip file as described above so that readers can easily access the exact code used to obtain the results in the paper. There are some possible exceptions:
    1. If the author’s institution requires a user to accept a license agreement or if the author has other reasonable grounds for not providing the source code as Supplementary Software, it may be acceptable for the author to host source code on an institutional server and require that users fill out an online form and agree to a license before downloading the software. In this instance the software must have version numbering and a link to the version used in the work must be provided in the manuscript.
    2. In some situations it may be permissible for authors to supply only compiled software as Supplementary Software but the source code to academic users upon email request. Details of availability must be clearly stated in the manuscript.
    3. It is not acceptable to make software and code available by email request only.

  • If the software or code isn’t the main tool/method being reported in the manuscript the authors may provide a note in the readme file of the Supplementary Software cautioning users that the code is unsupported and not intended for general use. In this case it is permissible that the software or code be made available only by email request but the authors must state this availability in the manuscript.
  • Regardless of how the software is made available, the code supplied with the manuscript must be identical to that used to obtain the data in the paper. An exception can be made for changes that don’t alter the processing of input data. The authors may however provide a link to access new versions of the software.
  • We strongly encourage authors to include a license with all published software and code.
  • We encourage authors to provide macros for recording the software version and parameter settings during analyses or to integrate this functionality into the software itself.

Web Tools/Resources
These represent a special class of software that many times can’t be expected to follow the same guidelines outlined above. This is particularly true if the web tool or resource is being supplied as a service and has few, if any, novel computational aspects to it. The only end-user requirement for web tools is that they be freely accessible with any modern web browser.

Nature.com provides a proxy server for reviewers to access web tools and resources anonymously.

At Submission

  • The authors must supply a working link and any necessary log in information.
  • Any unpublished algorithms central to the operation of the tool should be supplied in forms a), c) or d) detailed above.

At Acceptance

  • The authors should supply written confirmation that they will keep the website and tool operating and freely accessible for the foreseeable future.
Go to the profile of Daniel Evanko

Daniel Evanko

Editor, Springer Nature

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