Monday, February 22, 2016

This is how I will use preprints. How would you use them?

As usual there is some fierce debate going on on Twitter and this time it's about about preprints (non-peer-reviewed manuscripts made publicly available) and how they will save or completely doom biomedical research. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how I would use preprints, as I am writing a couple of papers. Here are my 2 cents.

Pre-prints are NOT peer-reviewed publications and should not be treated as such, but I consider them full fledged scientific output, i.e. items which could legally reside in an NIH biosketch. If you are at the point in a project where you have a fully formed manuscript with figures and stuff, kudos to you! Getting to that stage in a project is an achievement and a preprint in my book is a 1,000 times better than a manuscript listed "in preparation" in your CV. If I am on a faculty search committee or on a grant review panel and you list papers "in prep", that means nothing to me since I have no idea of when those projects will be done, nor what their scope is. I had papers in prep on my CV that never saw the light of I know better. So as a reviewer or committee member I would be delighted to read your preprints. It would allow me to actually take a look at your work.

This brings me to a point that baffles me, that preprints will doom biomedical research because without peer review, how will we judge? If preprints count for grants and job applications, will we not get flooded with crap? Wait, are we suddenly unable to read a paper? Despite all the people screaming to the top of their lungs that peer review is broken, I have always had a great experience as a peer reviewer and a peer reviewee (apart from Nature, reviewers for Nature are crazy, but this is a story from another post). Reviewers of my papers AND my grants have (almost) always had constructive and interesting comments which have led to a greatly improved product. As a relatively new reviewer, I always go read all the other reviewers' comments. In general I find that we agree, and that sometimes they bring up some really smart points is hadn't thought about or I didn't want to raise (I'm usually glad they did). All this to say that as someone who can write and review a paper, I can read a preprint and decide whether it's good or not....and so can most scientists. As long as we agree that a preprint is a manuscript that must be taken with a grain of salt, I think we'll do just fine.

How do I plan to use preprints in my own lab? Judiciously and with caution. Posting a preprint is still a very scary thing for a new investigator. I know there are other groups working on my genes of interest and I know they have some of the reagents/animals I have. They may not quite have the same expertise/ideas we have, but I've been surprised before by papers coming out of left field. Will the preprint of a particularly interesting finding generate wide interest and get multiple groups to actually publish before we do? Am I putting my career in jeopardy?

Some academics think of this attitude as blasphemy, but I look at my lab as it was a business. My products are papers, my earnings are grants. I peddle my goods at conferences and talks, find supporters and collaborators. I was trained to always share openly. If you don't put your product out there, who's going to buy it? It has served me well in the past: I have found my best collaborators by talking openly at conferences and sharing has saved me from getting scooped a couple of times. So I tend to lean towards preprints as just another product. I guess posting one is like beta testing. When I do I will be terrified and anxious, like when I occasionally share my inner fears and insecurities on my blog. But I'll start with baby steps after thorough discussion with my trainees and how this could help/hurt them. Let's just hope my papers don't stay in beta as long as Gmail!


  1. As a business owner, I'll argue that the knowledge and IP generated by a lab funded by public funds - that is in fine tax payers' money - belongs to the tax payers. A good lab should have enough vision to shrug the possibility of being scooped. That's business 101.
    As a (mature) PhD student: I am sick of the poor quality of the papers I read. I established 3 categories. (a) Papers where title and abstract are over-inflated in comparison to the results. (b) Papers whose methods are flawed (that includes the data-mining mania). (c) The minority of genuinely honest papers.
    I find that the difference between good and not, usually comes from a lack of general knowledge outside a specialty.
    Funding based publishing was a terrible interventionist idea, whose actual result is quantity over quality. It is the debate between Edison and Tesla. Again.
    I have recently made the decision to publish everything on preprint, despite the fact that my affiliation imposes on me to have 3 papers published in top notch journals to get the title. Sometimes, we just need to do the right thing, even if we may get hurt.

  2. I've decided not to submit preprints of my lab's work. I already submit primarily to open access journals, and I have no desire to take on the work of submitting my manuscript drafts to yet another respository when they'll be freely available in copy edited and peer reviewed form a few months later. The only people that preprints help are the Rockefeller/UCSF types who will be able to lay claim to being the first to discover something while still chasing the favor of Nature editors. Most papers are available on pubmed for free within a year of publication, so the benefit of a preprint has only a very short half life anyway.