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Are life scientists ready for preprints?

Are life scientists ready for preprints?

One of the major fears that stalk every life scientist along his/her career is research/publication scooping. This fear drives many scientists and students to paranoia behavior, limiting discussion with other colleagues (even in the same lab) and presentation of solely published work at conferences, all for the fear of scooping. Will the life scientists eventually follow the path of Mathematics, Astronomy and other accurate sciences widely using various preprints servers? It might happen, though it will require a revolutionary concept, such as suggested below. Keep on reading…

What is a preprint server?

The first preprint server came to life some 20 years ago as arXiv, which is an open archives for research manuscripts related to the exact sciences fields (mainly mathematics and physics). This preprint server has gained much popularity and today hosts also quantitative biology and quantitative finance manuscripts. Contrary to the exact sciences, the life science and biomedical research, that gains much attention by both the scientific community and the public, mostly shy away from the already available preprints servers such as Figshare, peerJ and the new bioRχiv.org server. Currently, PeerJ preprint server is mostly occupied by ecology, bioinformatics, evolutionary studies and marine biology without the presence of hot fields such as molecular biology, genetics or biochemistry.

Getting credit where and when it’s due

With increasing number of life scientists opening new laboratories and staring their own TT race, competition is ever increasing for the limited resources, funding and available TT positions. These limited resources push life scientists to aim at publishing as high and much as possible since a high ranking journal publication can have a tremendous effect over a TT candidate’s to secure future funding or a position within the academia. This means that when a research group stumbles over something big (or that appear so), 90% of scientists will keep this knowledge in their close proximity until a manuscript is ready for submission. On the one hand, keeping their cards close to their chest will reduce any possible scooping of ideas and “loosing” credit to a competing research group, yet scientific progression will and is suffering. Furthermore, tremendous amounts of resources (time, human effort and money) are wasted simply because several groups pursue the same “hot” and challenging questions, competing rather than collaborating.

The macromolecular crystallography field case

Crystallography is a field that is far from being fully comprehended, especially protein crystallography, since no one have a a-priori knowledge which protein can crystallize and which cannot, and at which settings. This means that when most crystallographers discover conditions for a novel protein crystal (which can be structurally-determined) they will guard this information from the scientific community until a manuscript is written.  It is known that no few macromolecular crystallographers withhold their structure coordinates and structure factor files deposition  to the protein database (PDB) only until the paper has been accepted or at least entered a peer-review stage. Some crystallographers even take it farther and submit these files only after the manuscript has been accepted by a journal. The reason for such a precaution resides in the PDB’s policy to publish the title and PDB code of any accepted structure, even those with standing publication embargoes.

Protein crystallographers are not alone: many questions in the life science fields requires certain a-priori knowledge to obtain a significant breakthrough that can eventually lead to a high impact publication.

The advantages of preprint

For many scientists, there seem to be no reason to pass through the preprint stage since they have already accepted the current situation. Yet, many other scientists, funding agencies and government officials acknowledge the awkwardness of the current state of affairs and would like to see open science, in which scientist collaborate and share their knowledge for the benefit of the common good. Preprint repositories have the potential to help journals by decreasing the amount of submitted manuscript which have not gone through peer-review and thus reducing the time from submission to acceptance. Manuscripts appearing on the preprints can draw attention and the comments of more scientists than through the conventional peer-review process and thus improve the scientific publication and science in general.

The preprint challenge

Obviously, the major issue of preprinting is credit. If a preliminary manuscript detailing the hard-worked study is placed in the public domain, the knowledge can be used by other groups to take advantage and scoop the discovery by quickly setting up the experiments and submitting to a journal publication. Unfortunantly, today in science it counts little if you’re second – the impact factor’s drop can be up to a full magnitude (!) from first submission to second in line. The end result is that science wins but the individual looses.

A solution

There is, however, a possible solution for the above issue. Such solution can be the requirement that any manuscript submission to journals must be preceded by preprint deposition for a fixed period (“Standstill period”) with every deposition identified by a unique DOI assigned by the preprint server that marks its end of standstill period. Along this period, the manuscript can receive comments and feedback from the community yet cannot be submitted for journal publication until the end of the standstill period. At the end of this period (1-3 months) the authors can chose to (1) submit the manuscript to a journal without revising it, (2) revise and submit the manuscript to the journal of choice  or (3) revise and resubmit to the preprint server for a second round of feedback.

Let’s look what will be the consequence of such scientific policy:

  • Credit – since every preprint will recieve a unique DOI signature, it will be clear which research group contributed to a certain novel discovery.
  • Acknowledgement and impact factor – the merit of the manuscript can be judged by the comments and feedback (positive or negative) solely by igniting discussion among scientists. Furthermore, impact factor ranking can be combined with the discussion metrics to have a balanced appreciation of the contribution of authors to the scientific community.
  • Diminishing of publication scooping – the combination of preprint submission requirement and a standstill period will make it very hard for competitors to try and race a manuscript for publication since they will have to comply to the same rules of preprinting publication.
  • Science available for everyone – scientific manuscripts will be visible to the public whether the final manuscripts are published behind a pay-wall or under an open access umbrella.
  • Time to public –with prerequisite preprinting publication, manuscripts will be available immediately upon completion, enabling researchers to monitor the “cutting edge” of science output and navigate their efforts according to the preprints manuscripts, saving resources such as time, human labor and money on experiments that have been already performed.

This solution is revolutionary and adopting it will require change to perception and ability of preprint servers to accommodate the amount of deposited manuscripts. Since journals will not be easily ready to adopt such change in scientific publication, it will be the authority of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world’s largest biomedical library, to require preprint’s DOI for any publication indexed by Pubmed.

Currently, only a very small part of scientists share their manuscripts at preprints servers and it seems that this state will be maintained unless fundamental change will take place within the world scientific publishing.

What’s your take of preprint? Do you think preprints will be a common method before submitting to a journal? Do you have any suggestions that will make preprint more attractive for life scientists? 

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4 comments on “Are life scientists ready for preprints?

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. Here at PeerJ PrePrints, we agree with you that there is very good potential for a preprint culture to take hold in the life sciences, and to advance the pace and quality of discovery.

    To address your issue of credit – all PeerJ PrePrints are assigned DOIs and have a full, formal citation.

    And just to correct one misconception in the post. PeerJ PrePrints is also ‘paired’ with a formal journal (PeerJ) and so also represents a route for an author to take their article from preprint through to formal publication in the same environment.

    Note: If you click the “view all subject areas” link in the lower right hand side of https://peerj.com/search/?&t=&type=preprints&subject=&uid=&sort=&filter=Genetics (for example) then you can view preprints by subject area (a list which does include molecular biology articles etc)

    • Hi PeerJ,
      Thank you for your comments and clarifications. I think that all journals should adapt a model such as yours so scientists can feel safe to share their discoveries without the fear of scooping.
      Chen

  2. I just found this. I’m Outreach Director for F1000Research, and we *are* formally a journal: All articles that pass an initial editorial check are sent out to invited referees for peer review, and articles that subsequently pass review are indexed in PubMed. We don’t currently have an impact factor simply because we’re still very new, and new journals never have one. It’s unrelated to our publishing model.

    • Dear Eva,
      Thank you for your comment – I am Sorry for the misleading text.
      I have removed the text related to the F1000research from the post.
      Best,
      Chen

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