Thinking of preprints in biology

At the end of 2014, the arXiv preprint server published its one millionth article. Richard Van Noorden reports on the milestone for Nature News: “The arXiv preprint server hits 1 million articles”.

The popularity of the arXiv server has varied among disciplines. Some physicists were reluctant at first to share their results before formal, peer-reviewed publication, but came around to the idea when they realized the benefits of a quick way to publicize their work. For example, the discovery of a class of iron-based superconductors in 2008 brought a host of condensed-matter experimentalists to the site, “won over by the need to stake precedence claims and get their results in front of theorists”, Ginsparg wrote in his 2011 piece.
Nowadays, many important findings are posted first at the site. When the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman proved the Poincaré conjecture (a statement about the nature of three-dimensional spaces that had resisted proof for almost a century), he posted his papers only at arXiv.org, and nowhere else. (Perelman later declined a Fields medal for the work).

It is very interesting that fields as diverse as physics, computer science, and economics have established such a strong tradition of releasing manuscript preprints of their research before publication, while it is in the process of revision and peer review. The process is widely recognized in these fields as a way to gain helpful feedback on research while clearly establishing priority for the ideas described in a research study. Yet this tradition has not widely taken hold in biology, with the exception of genetics where it has become increasingly common during the past few years.

Many have pondered the reasons why the arXiv has not gained equal prominence in biology as in physics and math. Philippe Desjardins-Proulx and colleagues (2013) contributed a perspective to PLoS Biology titled, “The case for open preprints in biology.”

There are a number of reasons why biologists have not developed a culture of sharing preprints, many of which are based on common misconceptions. For example, in contrast to other fields, there is a perception in biology that public preprints make it easier to steal ideas [2]. In other fields, preprints serve the opposite role: they allow straightforward establishment of precedence, letting a researcher lay claim to an idea, thus preventing it from being “stolen” [2]. Another major concern is based on a certain interpretation of the Ingelfinger rule: scientists should not publish the same manuscript twice [11]. A preprint is simply a document that allows ideas to spread and be discussed, it is not yet formally validated by the peer-review system. This is why almost all the major publishers in biology are preprint-friendly, including: Nature Publishing Group, PLOS, BMC, PNAS, Elsevier, and Springer (Table 2). This year, both the Ecological Society of America and the Genetics Society of America changed their policies to allow public preprints. Nature even felt compelled to respond to the rumor that they refused manuscripts submitted to arXiv by saying that “Nature never wishes to stand in the way of communication between researchers. We seek rather to add value for authors and the community at large in our peer review, selection and editing” [12]. Still, a few journals adopt a “by default” hostile attitude towards preprints, mostly due to the lack of clear policy of the publishers. As an example, Wiley-Blackwell, which publishes some of the leading journals in biology, has no official policy on the matter.

I think another reason that biologists have been hesitant about preprints is that there have been very few good models. Few of the field-specific journal editors have had much experience handling papers that are available as preprints, although in reality it can only improve the review process when other readers are also seeing and commenting on manuscripts under review.

The article by Desjardins-Proulx and colleagues gives a good description of several preprint servers and journal policies on preprints. One thing the article reminded me is that Figshare allows preprints to be posted as well as figures and datasets.

I have pointed readers to BioRxiv and arXiv before, and of course my brain size preprint (“Selection for smaller brains in Holocene human evolution”) is on arXiv. I’ve also pointed to Haldane’s Sieve, a site that carries open pre-publication review of preprints in genetics.

Reference

Desjardins-Proulx P, White EP, Adamson JJ, Ram K, Poisot T, et al. (2013) The Case for Open Preprints in Biology. PLoS Biol 11(5): e1001563. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001563