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Can Preprints Shake Up Biomedical Publishing?

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Academic publishing has proved stubbornly resistant to change. Whilst the way in which research is accessed has been dramatically altered by digitization, the subscription-based model that has made billions for giants like Elsevier has been largely unaffected by articles’ move online. But disruption from the open access movement has suggested that researchers and institutions are at least entertaining the idea of changes to how they publish and consume research.

But what if you could bypass journals altogether to access academic papers? That’s the alternative proposed by preprint publishing. Online preprints have been option since sites like arXiv started in 1991. That site took 17 years to accumulate half a million papers, but now sees well over 10,000 publications every month, mostly in the fields of computer science, math, and physics.

A dedicated biology preprint site took a little longer to arrive, but biorXiv, founded in 2013 and based at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has racked up over 70,000 submissions that can be freely accessed by anyone. Technology Networks spoke to BiorXiv content lead Samantha Hindle to find out more about how preprints could shake up publishing and give scientists a new avenue through which to share their research.

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): Could you tell us what a pre-print is?

Samantha Hindle (SH):
A preprint is a version of a research manuscript that has not yet gone through the peer review process of a journal. The service that we provide is free and any researcher can use the service. It’s a great way to get their research out as fast as possible and hopefully to help them get greater awareness for the hard work that they’re doing whilst it’s still in the application process.

RM: Why should researchers use preprints?

Basically to increase the amount of awareness for their work. Also, they can get more feedback for the research. If they submit to bioRxiv when they have first written up the research manuscript whilst it’s in the peer review process, they have anything from months to sometimes years to get feedback from the whole community. That can help them to improve the manuscript and make it a better piece of research at the end of the day. Hopefully that might even make the publication process faster as well. If you improve the manuscript before you even submit it to the journal, then hopefully the peer review process might be a little bit smoother as well.

RM: Could you talk about the controls you’ve brought into make sure that people using bioRxiv don’t have to worry about an increased risk of being scooped?  

You could actually see it as the opposite of that, that’s it’s anti-scooping protection for them. By putting the work out there, they have their name associated with it, it has a time stamp of when they submitted and posted on bioRxiv, and because it has that DOI people can start citing it. That way the work is more known and that can actually protect from scooping.

There are some journals as well that have anti-scooping protection policies and the way that works is that once you’ve submitted your manuscript to bioRxiv for example and then you submit to one of those journals, if another group publishes similar research whilst it’s in the peer review process they will still publish your research.  They won’t see it as not being novel anymore because they appreciate that you put your work out very early to help the whole scientific process. They honor that by saying, "We know you did the work earlier on and so we still want to publish it and we don’t see it as not novel."

If you have your manuscript in the peer review process and someone else publishes it, you basically both had the same ideas at the same time. There’s a lot of publishers like EMBO and PLOS and eLife who really recognize that being 'first' is not necessarily the be all and end all, sometimes being second is actually better because you’re showing them that research is reproducible and robust. That’s really valuable to science and so there’s a lot of journals now who are realizing that. Rather than rushing to get your work out as quickly as possible in terms of getting it published really fast, it’s actually better to do it right. If you get your work published and it turns out the results are wrong, then you have to retract that and that’s much worse for your reputation than if you do it properly the first time. 

RM: I know that in other fields it’s quite common to have research in a public archive for years in advance of journal publication. Why do you think biology and medical sciences  have been a bit late to the party?

I think maybe some could say that biologists are a bit more conservative, I don’t know how true that is. I think it’s been a case of timing. From my personal perspective, I used to be a researcher myself and I saw the frustration in the publishing system and how long it was taking. I think a lot of other scientists or a lot of other biologists have started to realize that. 

RM: Does bioRxiv consider itself part of the open access movement?

We’re completely free and are open for anyone to use the work. I would hope that researchers will become more familiar with bioRxiv and see the benefits of [their research] being really available and not having any paywalls or any barriers. How that has helped them, maybe increase citations for example. I would hope that would encourage more researchers to make sure that their published version is open access as well, but I don’t have any data on that as such.

RM: Sometimes as a journalist I find that if I ask a researcher to grant access to their paper, they’re sometimes a bit unsure whether they can share it with me, if it’s behind a paywall. I’m sure you’ve had questions from authors asking, “If my research is on bioRxiv, will I be okay publishing it?” Do you have reassurance for them around that risk?

We don’t take the copyright from them; they maintain the copyright and so that way when it’s finally published, they can transfer the copyright over to the journal if they need to. They can also pick whatever license they want. They can pick anything from all rights reserved through to CC-BY and that’s all the author’s choice.

RM: If the copyright is transferred to the journals, does that mean it has to come off bioRxiv?

No, that original version stays on bioRxiv forever. We give a DOI for that, which means it can be citable It becomes part of the permanent scholarly record, so it’s important that it stays on the site.

RM: Do you think it's a good thing to have more non-peer reviewed research in the public sphere? 

SH: I guess the good thing is the whole community can then weigh in. If the work is out in the open, anyone can comment, anyone can improve it, it doesn’t depend just on two or three reviewers. Anyone can have input and that’s quite empowering to the community, particular early career researchers, who often can know a lot of the techniques probably better than their PI! They can weigh in and say, “Have you thought about doing this?” and then that can really help the researchers improve their work before it’s published.

I completely agree with you that a lot of people are cautious about having data out there that’s not been peer reviewed, but one; peer review is not perfect and two; the fact that it’s very clearly stated that these manuscripts have not been through peer review is actually really helpful to any scientist because it helps to train you how to read a manuscript because you know it’s not been through peer review, you should therefore read it with more of a critical eye. To be honest that’s exactly how you should read any paper, regardless of whether it’s been through peer review or not.

Preprints have helped to educate scientists on how they should be reading manuscripts and it might actually help them develop a more critical eye which they can then apply to their own research. When I was a researcher, I was very lucky, my PI involved me in the peer review process. That way I learned a lot and I could apply that new way of thinking about data analysis to my own work, and that made me a better scientist. I think preprints have a lot of additional uses that people don’t necessarily realize. I’m not concerned about them being out there, I think it’s very clear that we’ve not been through peer review and that can actually help, like I say, to change how researchers are reading papers.

Samantha Hindle was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.