T

hese days, it seems, new initiatives at the National Institutes of Health are about as safe as a legless rabbit at a greyhound convention. But here’s one that doesn’t have anything to do with money that might have a fighting chance of sticking around — and benefitting science along the way.

In what is “likely a watershed moment for preprints in the life sciences,” the NIH this month announced a new policy of encouraging researchers it funds to submit their work to preprint servers before they attempt to publish in conventional journals.

And perhaps even more important, the policy allows scientists to cite preprint papers in grant applications to the agency.

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The “watershed” assessment comes from Jessica Polka, director of ASAPbio, a nonprofit that pushes for the use of preprints in the life sciences.

“The NIH’s policy will create a strong incentive for researchers to create interim research products. This, in turn, will accelerate the pace of discovery,” Polka told STAT. “I imagine that the policy will influence other funding agencies and universities, not only because of the NIH’s prominence, but also because of the announcement’s thorough consideration of standards for citing, storing, and accessing preprints.”

Today, publications in prestigious journals rule the day for researchers seeking funding and promotions, which we and others have pointed out encourages reviewers to look at titles and brands rather than judging the quality of a candidate’s work by reading papers. That, in turn, creates incentives for researchers to reach for the golden ring of splashy findings, instead of doing what’s best for science. And peer review can be drawn-out — not to mention flawed — with journals still only publishing the studies they think will earn headlines and big citation numbers.

The NIH is now signaling a crucial break from that mentality. The hope is that by fostering these “interim research products” the agency can speed the pace of discovery and boost reproducibility of results. And that could be a strong nudge to other funders, and universities, that preprints should be taken into consideration in other areas, too, such as tenure and promotion decisions.

Still, not everyone was pleased with the announcement. The Federations of American Societies For Experimental Biology (FASEB), which calls itself “the nation’s largest coalition of biomedical researchers,” had earlier warned that allowing researchers to cite preprints in grant applications could lead to confusion over what was peer-reviewed and what wasn’t.

The NIH acknowledged those concerns, saying it “agrees that interim research products offer lower quality information than peer-reviewed products. This policy is not intended to replace peer-review, nor peer-reviewed journals. Instead, the NIH sees interim research products complementing final research products.”

FASEB was also concerned that allowing preprints into grant applications would add to reviewers’ workload. We’re sympathetic to that burden, but as ASAPbio pointed out in a public letter posted in January, that argument sends “an overarching message that there is ‘no need to read.’ Study section members are peer reviewers and encouraging them to read papers and directly evaluate data and arguments is better for high quality grant review than relying on a list of journal names or impact factors.”

The NIH also said that some of those who responded to a draft of its proposal “noted special risks for the general public, clinicians, patients, and the media in accessing research products that have not been peer-reviewed. These risks are especially great for clinical research, and there are examples when even peer-reviewed findings have been hyped and misinterpreted by the media.”

Good on NIH for acknowledging these concerns, but as longtime science and medical reporters, we have to say to those who raised them: really? It’s peer-reviewed journals that publish the work that tends to be hyped and misinterpreted by the media, often aided and abetted by press releases from those same journals and from universities. If you doubt that, have a look at the work of Health News Review. Peer review is no magic wand.

In short, this was the right call by NIH. And it it means other funders take the preprint plunge too, all the better.

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