OK, so this post is mostly about preprints. Onward!

Some background

Ask a high-energy physicist (does anyone really know one?) about using a preprint server and chances are that not only have they deposited papers at one (like arXiv), chances are the discussion of whether or not to do so either doesn’t make any sense (because…physicist) or is silly (because…physicist). Jokes about our mathy colleagues aside, the practice of posting research to their larger scientific community before or during the peer review process, which in their case can sometimes take an inordinately long time, become part of their culture over two decades ago.

Started in the early 90’s, arXiv is currently housed at Cornell University and currently serves the fields of Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance, and Statistics. As of today, it provides open access to 995,193 e-prints, not shabby at all considering that only 306 papers were submitted in 1991, the first year. Though there are other minor players in the game, the main additional preprint servers are: bioRxiv, Nature Precedings, and PeerJ.

Now, if you’re looking for a thorough review of preprint culture in biology, this post will not be the place. There have been others who invested the time and energy to do that, and if you’re interested in what others have to say (and you should be), There are links at the bottom of this post, what this post will be about is a recent preprint experience I had at EvolFri.

The reading

So why all this talk of preprints, Chris? Glad you asked. At a recent installment of EvolFri, we read a paper that, though now published in a highly-read, though perhaps not the most technical, journal, started out as a preprint. Not only did it start out as a preprint, we even knew about it as soon as it came out (i.e., social media) there. Awesome, I thought: a preprint relevant to the work we do in our lab, one we can potentially read at our weekly “meeting,” and written by scientists we respect. Which brings me to Preprint Benefit #1: we got access to the work before it went through the formal processes of editorial consent and peer review.

My first read through it, as with most papers I read for the first time, caused no great distress. I made note of some sections and sentences to come back to later, which of course I didn’t (something about a road, paving, and best intentions?). The version that we actually read for EvolFri, however, was different enough, post-publication, that the group (myself included) had some not insignificant concerns. On the surface, the points made in the paper were harmless enough in most cases, but given the high-degree of readership of the eventual journal and who in the community was likely to read the article (e.g., outside grant reviewers), alarm bells started to go off. This leads right into Preprint Benefit #2: the ability for the scientific community to interact with the paper. This interaction, I imagine can come in many forms: 1) Emailing the authors with comments, 2) Posting comments directly to the paper (or an aggregator site, like Haldane’s Sieve), or using the special powers of social media to comment to the world (+dog). In fact, in this case, comments were indeed solicited by the authors when the preprint was advertised.

The problem

While we agreed with the majority of the points made in the paper, the concerns we had after it was all over were, in our (now red-cheeked) opinions, worthy of larger scientific discussion/criticism. If only we had a forum in which to address these issues before they were formally published. If only…

Let’s talk about Preprint Problem #1: there’s no incentive to participate other than to publish. Open science is awesome, a great idea, supported by large numbers of scientists in our field and others, and can only do great things, right? OK, that’s well-established. Unfortunately, the current climates of Biology and Biomedicine do: little, if anything, to reward the publishing of preprint articles; little, if anything, to reward having your preprint article cited, and nothing at all to reward participating in the process of preprint review. Why in the name of Darwin would any scientist in their right mind, who is already committed to 50% research, 50% teaching, 50% service, and 50% outreach (yes, I can add), devote any time to providing comments to preprints? That lots of scientists are not in their right mind in the first place, notwithstanding, they don’t. They simply don’t, and won’t until something changes with the current state of Big Business Academia, where pressures to train, publish, teach, and serve compete with turning the wheels of the overhead machine.

Step 1: fix

Did click the fix link? No, well, then there is no pleasing you.

Joking aside, the only way this system is going to change, I think, is for a few brave souls to stand up and fight the “man”. I’m talking about picketing, walk-outs, and rioting, if you have to. Hell, take a student or two hostage (not your own, though, they have work to do). Even, now bare with me, lecturing without PowerPoint can’t be off the table.

If all of that seems too tame, I understand. Maybe instead of those options, we can all just come together at meetings, or over the social internet media site thingies, and decide this is something that we want to do (or not) and move forward. Lobby with colleagues in your department. Meet with your colleagues in Physics. Come together as a community and make those above us, at least in title, understand why this part of your 50% service is valuable and rewardable.

Preprint repositories can help, too. In addition to the lobbying, blogging, and publishing that they already do, providing a way to validate and query contributions of outside reviewers/commentors would be a great first step, so when Dr. Friedline says he reviewed 365 pre-prints last year, his boss can easily validate it.