Academics in physics, economics, or math often think that life scientists (like myself) are weird because life science doesn’t have a preprint server. Life science is a fast-paced discipline, but there’s no place where the latest research can be found, discussed, and where the primacy of results can be established. There’s a lot of value in life science research (the reproducible subset, that is) but instead of staking your claim to a finding shortly after you get the data, many researchers feel like they have to write a polished paper, submit it to a prestigious journal, and wait nerve-wracking months to years for the process of review, rejection, resubmission to finally make their results available to a subset of others in their field.As submission-to-publication times grow, fears of someone else getting there first grow and there are often accusations of “anonymous” reviewers asking for more experiments, just to delay the publication of a paper from a competing lab. What can be done about this? As frustrating as these problems are, it’s worth remembering that they’re relatively recent in origin. Pre-publication peer review as a critical part of the publication has only become standard in the last half of the 20th century. As Jason Hoyt notes in a post at Scientific American, Watson & Crick’s paper in Nature wasn’t peer reviewed.
So it might seem like Peerj’s announcement today of a preprint server for life science is a good idea. Indeed, some ecologists and bioinformatics folks already use Arxiv, but as some of you will surely point out, we’ve tried preprint servers before. Nature had Nature Precedings back in 2007, and that didn’t really go anywhere. PeerJ (see our founder interview) would like to convince you that this time it’s different, because Nature weren’t really fully behind Precedings and because it didn’t really seem like it fit anywhere. Although it got thousands of submissions, perhaps the time was just a bit too early as well. Now there are millions more scientists online and we have ways of tracking the attention that a pre-print gets in addition to only citations of final published versions.
So I think that now might be the right time, and PeerJ might be the right people to do it. What do you think? Below I’ve listed some interesting points for discussion.
Benefits of a pre-print server:
It gets your work out immediately, drastically reducing the chance of being scooped unless the other lab legitimately gets the result first. It weakens the role of underhanded tactics.
It improves the final published work. Instead of having work improved by being bounced around by reviewers and editors from journal to journal until it finds a home, the reviews can happen one place, and this also means that the reviews, the “dark matter” of scholarly output, can finally become part of the scholarly record.
It’s just the right thing to do. It’s part of the social contract of doing research in academia that you disseminate your work, and a preprint server allows you to do this as broadly and cheaply as possible.
There’s a lot of crazy stuff on Arxiv. Let’s be honest, there are thousands of people who claim to have discovered flaws in the theory of relativity or the secret to perpetual motion. This preprint server will no doubt attract a similar level of attention from people with cures for cancer and herbal remedies that will end all disease and bring about world peace. If they can’t figure out a way to keep that stuff out, or at least moderated appropriately, it’s going to be hard to build broader acceptance.
There may also be concerns about intellectual property. Maybe the slower process of publication works better for discoveries that have commercial value? PeerJ has said that they are working on a more granular set of privacy controls which may address some of these issues.
Why would a researcher spend time preparing a document for the preprint server or commenting on articles there if they could spend time working on a submission that’s more likely to help them get their next grant or tenure? Altmetrics can help, but can PeerJ get enough of the right articles in front of the right people at the right time to elicit feedback that’s useful to both the author and the reader? Will there be some way for a reader to know that a critical comment was left by a competitor or a glowing comment was left by a co-worker? How will the reputation that scientists have in the real world be made apparent to readers?