A group of scientists, journal editors, and funders of research met recently to talk about a once-heretical idea: preprint publishing for biologists.
The practice, of publishing manuscripts online before formal peer review and journal publication, is longstanding in physics and a few other fields. But biologists have been slower to embrace it.
Why that’s the case isn’t clear. Both groups of researchers are equally obsessed with priority — the flag-on-the-peak declaration of who discovered what first. Indeed, it may just be thanks to an accident of history that it was a physicist, Paul Ginsparg, and not a biologist, who launched the first preprint server for his colleagues a quarter-century ago while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At the ASAPbio gathering, a Cell journal editor expressed concerns about the idea; a publisher at Elsevier took to Twitter to do the same. (Though times may be changing: Elsevier recently bought a preprint server for the social sciences.)
But support for preprints is building. In a recent issue of Science, the participants in the ASAPbio meeting wrote about their perspectives on preprints in biology. We spoke by phone with James Fraser, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and a coauthor of the Science article, about the issue. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the benefits of preprints in biology, of the kind that bioRxiv is publishing? Some people argue that biology is faring fine under the traditional publishing system.
JF: I’d reflect that the benefits have been proven for science in general. It’s more of a shame that biology didn’t adopt this 25 years ago when arXiv [pronounced “archive”] really caught fire in physics. [It now hosts more than 1.1 million papers from physics, math, computer science and other disciplines.] For me, the major benefits are speed of communication of scientific results; having control of when those results are communicated into the hands of the community; and an increase in transparency in the development of scientific ideas in general. For biology, I think it’s an exciting moment because I think we’re realizing as a community that we can be doing this. Physics has done the experiment for us.
Do your colleagues share your enthusiasm?
JF: The challenge is that I’m in a bubble. I run a lab in the Bay Area, I’m active on Twitter, and I did my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. In my world at UCSF, it seems like it’s almost 100 percent accepted. Outside of the bubble, it’s probably close to the other way around, and that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to identify who’s against preprints, and a lot of the inertia is simply due to a lack of knowledge. The purpose of our commentary was to raise awareness among the people whose initial gut reaction is that they’re dead-set against the idea.
But won’t preprints let through shoddy papers that conventional peer review would have weeded out more efficiently?
JF: Anything that wants to see the light of day now can eventually be published without ever having to respond to meaningful peer review. So, if we’re really worried that anything that can be published will be published, I think that’s already to a certain extent happening. The question is: Is this going to cause a major decline in the quality of those published papers?
I don’t think the sky is going to fall. People will still be very careful about what they post because they want to keep their reputation for posting high-quality science.
So, I don’t think we’re going to be flooded by low-quality science. We all want to have a reputation for doing science that’s important in our field.
What could reduce some of the disincentives to preprints that biologists face?
JF: Most journals are 100 percent fine with preprints, so that downside really disappears once you study the issue in some detail. Aside from Cell Press, the major journals in biology are totally compatible with the concept. One thing that is really important to recognize is that preprints are compatible with current peer review and post-publication peer review. It’s really not about totally changing the system as it exists; it’s evolving it into something that’s under scientists’ control a little more, something that’s more open, transparent and rapid.