The rise of biological preprints

Although I’m not particularly long-in-the-tooth, for my entire scientific life I have known that publishers (at least in my field) do not accept papers that have been published elsewhere. And while workers in fields like mathematics and physics have long been able to post preprints of their work prior to peer review and subsequent publication in a journal, researchers in the biological sciences have generally not been allowed to do that. This is because most, if not all, journals that accept biological research manuscripts have historically considered posting a preprint as prior publication. And papers that have been previously published are, rightly, persona non grata in reputable journals.

This “prior publication” attitude toward preprints is a pity because such posting has many upsides (outlined in detail here and here and here) and very few downsides. As an editor of a small journal, and a regular reviewer for a large number of other journals in my field, I can attest to the fact that posting to such a service, in which members of the community can comment and critique an article prior to review, would have helped to strengthen just about every manuscript that has ever come across my desktop.

Some of the biggest advantages of preprint posting that I can see are:

Increased community involvement in the scientific process: Scientists at all levels would be able to take part in reading, processing, and commenting on others’ work. Amateurs would also have access to the process and could provide their often-valuable input as well. That would build community, connections, and collaborations. And that would, in turn, help to strengthen and improve the scientific endeavor in general.

Providing authors with valuable feedback and allowing them to improve their work prior to a formal review: As an editor and reviewer I understand quite intimately the (generally thankless) time and effort that it takes to process an article from first submission to final publication. As an author, I know what it feels like to have the “reject” button pressed on a study that I have invested blood and sweat into. In both cases, prior thoughtful advice and critique from the larger community would help to make the formal process smoother.

Results become visible and public more rapidly: Again, as an editor, I know how long it can take for a paper to move from submission to publication. While some traditional journals have done their best to speed things along in recent years, we all have stories of papers that have languished for eons on some editor’s or reviewer’s desk, holding up the publication of the work for even years. Preprint posting does an end-around, allowing the work to be seen immediately and reducing the irritation that slow processing by a journal might cause. The rest of the scientific community would have access to results that may improve research in other labs or even other fields prior to official acceptance and formal publication.

Less fear about being scooped: I’m thankful that my area of biology generally moves at merely a moderate clip. I’m also thankful that, in general, colleagues in my field are much more willing and eager to collaborate than to compete. However, I’m fully aware that not all fields are like this. In those fields, researchers rightly worry about another lab beating them to the punch. Preprint posting, as it is fully public, would give a researcher a claim to precedence that could be fully validated as necessary. Personally, I see this is the least important of the reasons for posting to a preprint server. But I understand that it is a consideration for many.

In the last little while many major publishers have changed their tune on this. Most recently that included the stable of journals held by the Ecological Society of America. In addition, a new kid on the block, PeerJ, is going to run a preprint service as a part of its overall open access journal offering. This is a trend that is being welcomed by many in the field. And it’s one more example of how scientific publishing is necessarily changing – I think for the better – as it is stretched by new technologies and concomitant new ways of doing things.