The Preprint Culture in Biology: A Growing Trend
Preprints are manuscripts posted online before peer-review at a journal, to expedite the release of scientific findings, since peer-review is often a lengthy process. Preprints in the Biological Sciences started in 2013, with the establishment of bioRxiv and PeerJ. BioRxiv a server run by CSHL models arXiv, the successful preprint repository for physics, which was set up in the 1990’s. Engineers and mathematicians were quick to follow suit and have taken to depositing manuscripts at arXiv for over a decade now. In Biology the preprint culture has been somewhat slow to catch on, although 2018 has seen an exponential rise in preprint uploads and downloads– the purpose and reporting of Biology preprints in media nonetheless is still being debated.
As early as 1961, NIH had created Information Exchange Groups (IEG): where members belonging to the same broad area of research, shared their manuscripts with each other before publication. IEGs eventually grew to include 3000 members, comprising scientists across 46 countries and saw over 2500 preprints sent out by post. The IEG movement however, was entirely squelched in 1967 by the concerted effort of certain publishing houses and journals (threatened by the uprising) that refused to accept manuscripts already in circulation. In today’s day and age of the Internet, Openness and free data sharing- preprints in Biology have resurfaced again to bridge the gap between initial discovery and final reveal. Journals and publishing companies have figured that to stay in the game, they have to embrace the preprint revolution, and most journals now accept article published as preprints.
Preprints allow authors to claim priority and ownership of their data and ideas; they provide greater visibility, citations and even open up job opportunities for early career researchers. Additionally, since preprints are open to public scrutiny-fraudulent practices, plagiarism, and over-hyped claims should seemingly get caught out early. While, preprints don’t go through the rigor of peer-review, various platforms such as biOverlay, preLights, and PREreview have arisen, where select preprints are discussed as well as mock-reviewed. The peer-review process, although held as a gold standard in scientific publishing has often turned out to be faulty and inadequate, at times contributing to the spread of false and harmful scientific claims. Since preprints don’t have a specific journal’s tag yet, they can be evaluated for the quality of science with reduced bias.
According to Dr. Giorgio Gilestro, a Lecturer at Imperial College London, “Preprints have revolutionized publishing in Biology, and there is no going back.” Dr. Gilestro’s own experience upon submitting preprints to bioRxiv has only been positive. He has received tremendous feedback and constructive criticism-no short of a full peer-review, including suggestions from a Nobel Laureate. Published manuscripts seldom receive this kind of feedback; neither do scientific meetings provide such opportunity-which is essential for driving good science forward. Another point Dr. Gilestro harps on is that “Since preprints are visible to the world and experts as soon as they are posted, authors are motivated to submit a version that is more finished and mature compared to what they would normally send out to a journal, where they anticipate the manuscript will completely change after the review process”. One of the pitfalls of having a preprint space, however he said, is that “Journals may take longer to review and finally publish manuscripts since the pressure to put out a hot scientific discovery is taken away”.
ASAPbio is an organization fully committed to promoting preprints as a means of communicating science transparently and quickly. The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative funded the expansion of bioRxiv in 2017, a move that has emboldened the preprint cause. The preprint platform also brings the science world closer, as scientists from all countries- those with means, and those without-can now contribute, and be heard.
In conclusion, the preprint culture is here to stay, and biologists are already seeing the benefits of sharing their scientific findings rapidly and openly. Preprints provide greater visibility and can draw useful feedback as well as constructive criticism, while calling out scientific misconduct. Who knows if the infamous STAP cell papers with all its false data and fantastic claims were published first as preprints (and not in Nature), perhaps the tragic consequences following intense media hype and bashing, might have taken a different turn?
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