Life Science's Average Publishable Unit (APU) Has Increased over the Past Two Decades

PLoS One. 2016 Jun 16;11(6):e0156983. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0156983. eCollection 2016.


Quantitative analysis of the scientific literature is important for evaluating the evolution and state of science. To study how the density of biological literature has changed over the past two decades we visually inspected 1464 research articles related only to the biological sciences from ten scholarly journals (with average Impact Factors, IF, ranging from 3.8 to 32.1). By scoring the number of data items (tables and figures), density of composite figures (labeled panels per figure or PPF), as well as the number of authors, pages and references per research publication we calculated an Average Publishable Unit or APU for 1993, 2003, and 2013. The data show an overall increase in the average ± SD number of data items from 1993 to 2013 of approximately 7±3 to 14±11 and PPF ratio of 2±1 to 4±2 per article, suggesting that the APU has doubled in size over the past two decades. As expected, the increase in data items per article is mainly in the form of supplemental material, constituting 0 to 80% of the data items per publication in 2013, depending on the journal. The changes in the average number of pages (approx. 8±3 to 10±3), references (approx. 44±18 to 56±24) and authors (approx. 5±3 to 8±9) per article are also presented and discussed. The average number of data items, figure density and authors per publication are correlated with the journal's average IF. The increasing APU size over time is important when considering the value of research articles for life scientists and publishers, as well as, the implications of these increasing trends in the mechanisms and economics of scientific communication.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Science Disciplines / trends*
  • Humans
  • Publications / trends
  • Publishing / trends*
  • Research / trends
  • Science / trends*

Grants and funding

RJBC was supported by "Science without Borders”—Young Talent Attraction Scholarship from the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Tecnológico (CnPq) e Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES).