Journal Supplements: Salient Features, Challenges, and Future Trends

22 March 2018
Journal Supplements: Salient Features, Challenges, and Future Trends

Scholarly journals form the primary source of information on the latest advances in medical knowledge, and supplements form an intrinsic segment of many journal publications. When journals wish to separately publish a collection of papers on a particular topic – such as a specific disease, an unmet need in research, or a treatment method – they often choose to use supplements. Supplements are special issues that are published apart from the usual journal issues.

To put together supplements, journal editors may either issue a call for papers focused on the special issue, or directly commission submissions from specific pharmaceutical companies or research groups. Alternatively, commercial enterprises such as pharmaceutical companies may approach journals to publish specific research topics in a supplement.1 Supplements are handled either by the journal’s editor or a guest editor who is appointed to oversee their publication. Irrespective of this, supplements are always editorially independent and are expected to go through peer review with the same rigor as regular journal issues. In other words, regardless of their funding source, supplements are expected to meet the same ethical and editorial standards as those of the parent journal.

Key benefits of publishing in supplements

Custom publications in the form of journal supplements present an array of benefits for the pharmaceutical industry as well as the journals. Supplements focus on themes or topics that are of interest to pharmaceutical companies, and offer greater flexibility and a relatively faster route to publication. Journals are swamped with submissions, so supplements allow them to publish quality papers that fall outside a pre-determined regular issue in a streamlined manner.

Regular journal issues may not be the right platform to offer a compilation of content on a specific topic, for example, in-depth coverage of an event or conference, or a discussion on a new drug or treatment method. Supplements offer an effective alternative because of their specificity of content and prominence on the journal platform. They are highly focused on a specific theme and garner a lot of attention. This works to the advantage of pharma companies as it amplifies the relevance, impact, and outreach of their publications. In parallel, bringing attention to topics that are of interest to readers can boost the journal’s brand value as well.

Supplements are considered part of the scholarly literature. Therefore, articles in supplements get indexed in databases such as PubMed and Google Scholar, just as the articles in the parent journal would. In fact, according to one study,2 articles published in supplements can receive as many or more citations than their counterparts in regular journal issues. Thus, as long as pharmaceutical companies choose the right journal,3 supplements can be powerful concise packages of information that are potentially faster to get published and offer all the benefits of traditional publishing. Journals, through their large-scale outreach, help sponsors connect to their target readership. In turn, supplements provide journals with an avenue to broaden their reader base and engage with the sponsor’s target markets. Publishing supplements is, thus, mutually beneficial for both sponsors and journals.

Ensuring the quality and integrity of supplements

Because of the commercial sponsorship supplements receive, their content may be perceived as being biased in favor of sponsors, lacking transparency, and not as stringently reviewed as regular journal articles.4 However, reputed journals strive to uphold best publication practices when dealing with supplements so that the content matches the standards of regular publications.

To address concerns about ethical standards and transparency, medical writers are expected to follow the Good Publication Practice (GPP3) guidelines, irrespective of whether the publications are sponsored.5 Broadly, these guidelines advise authors and medical writers to follow the publication principles that support GPP3’s six core principles: integrity, transparency, completeness, accuracy, accountability, and responsibility.

Journals usually manage supplements vigilantly as they bear the journal’s brand name and add to their bank of publications.6 Supplements are expected to abide by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines7 to ensure that the reporting is ethical and accurate. According to these guidelines, journal editors are expected to assume responsibility for all aspects of the supplement, including making disclosures about funding, conflicts of interest, and authorship; accepting no favors from sponsors; and upholding recommended guidelines and editorial standards.

Adherence to guidelines by both authors/medical writers and journals would aid in reducing concerns about the quality and credibility of supplements.

Supplements in the digital age

Rapid changes in patterns of knowledge consumption,8 and the increased use of online sources and social media by researchers and HCPs, are prompting journals to increasingly go digital. Digitization brings with it greater opportunities for journals to publish more frequently and reach out to larger audiences. Supplements in online journals can thus enable pharmaceutical companies to broaden their reach and increase engagement with their target readership.

In line with trends in how HCPs are now consuming content9, journals and pharmaceutical companies should explore social media channels to better disseminate the content of journal supplements to target markets and audiences. Adding visual elements to supplements would further increase their visibility and outreach. Interactive content formats such as visual and graphical abstracts, infographics, and lay summaries are widely shared on social media platforms. HCPs too, who are usually strapped for time, are likely to welcome these easy-to-absorb nuggets of information. Thus, in the age of digitization, complementing supplements with multimedia formats would improve the supplements’ online presence, and thereby increase their outreach.

The future of supplements

Supplements are increasingly playing a critical role in disseminating knowledge and increasing engagement between journals and their target readership. Through focused collections of articles, journals can focus on pressing issues, such as unmet needs in research areas, or create awareness about an intervention or a disease. In light of the impact they could have, the publication of supplements is being instigated by journal editors.

To amplify the outreach of supplements, journals need to strategically use engaging elements such as interactive content formats and visual modes of representing information. This would help them drive engagement with the target readership and improve the presence of supplements on social sharing platforms.

Journal supplements can be the perfect resource for pharmaceutical sponsors to reach out to HCPs and researchers about specific issues they wish to address. Supplements are the optimal platform to engage their target readership and markets. Additionally, these special issues offer all the benefits of publishing in a parent journal, such as high-quality peer review and database indexing. These publications are therefore citable, easily discoverable, and most importantly, reliable.

Given these strengths and advantages and the immense potential offered by digitization, supplements can become a powerful outreach and engagement channel for journals as well as the pharmaceutical industry. Download the Journal Supplements Infographic today to learn more about features, benefits, and trends.


  1. Guide to Publishing Special Issues

  2. Citability of Original Research and Reviews in Journals and Their Sponsored Supplements

  3. Maximize Your Study’s Visibility by Choosing the Right Journal

  4. The Role of Sponsored Supplements in a Peer-Reviewed Journal 5. GPP3 Guidelines 6. Should Medical Journals Publish Sponsored Content?

  5. ICMJE Guidelines – Supplements, Theme Issues, and Special Series

  6. Physicians Still Rely on Medical Journals but Turn to the Web When They Have Only 10 Minutes 9. Helping HCPs Access Trusted Content They Need