Accelerating science with preprints

Accelerating science with preprints

Thursday, May 26, 2016 - 08:03

By Mark Patterson

Improving the communication of scientific findings is at the heart of eLife’s mission, so we believe that results should be made available as soon as possible.  We encourage authors to deposit manuscripts as preprints in bioRxiv and other online repositories before peer review in order to increase access to research findings and to communicate new results more quickly. We also remain convinced that thoughtful peer review adds considerable value to individual manuscripts and to the scientific literature as a whole.

Physicists have been using the arXiv preprint server since 1991 but biologists have been slower to embrace preprints. In 2013, however, inspired by the success of the arXiv, a preprint repository called bioRxiv was launched by Cold Spring Harbor Press. BioRxiv and other similar repositories enable researchers in the life and biomedical sciences to provide rapid and open access to their results.

As it does in physics, we believe that sharing preprints first and then submitting the work for peer review can work well together, and so we have taken steps to support preprint deposition. For example, eLife, along with the Royal Society, PLOS and EMBO, posted a draft statement in support of preprint deposition for discussion at the recent Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio) meeting. It is also straightforward for an author who has deposited a preprint in bioRxiv to submit it to eLife if they wish. Indeed, we encourage all authors submitting to eLife to deposit their manuscripts as preprints, and have maintained from the beginning that the public availability of manuscripts would not affect editorial consideration at eLife.

The deposition of manuscripts in preprint repositories before journal submission offers several benefits to authors and readers. Authors can release their findings early and gain credit for their achievements without having to wait for the journal publishing process to take its course. This is particularly beneficial for early-career researchers seeking to demonstrate their productivity to funders and future employers in a timely manner. They can also receive suggestions and feedback from the broader community and revise their reports accordingly. Similarly, interested readers will see relevant work earlier, which could help their own research program.  Another potential benefit is that the widespread circulation of preprints will shed light on the value that formal peer review provides and could stimulate additional experimentation with peer review processes. 

Submitting to a peer-reviewed journal offers additional, complementary benefits. Authors receive feedback from selected experts in their field, which can improve the work and how it is presented. The journal platform will also enhance the discovery and use of the work by others.  Publication in a particular journal can help to target the work for particular communities and can provide an indicator of the potential value of the work as assessed by the journal editors and reviewers. The latter point is more contentious given the concerns that have been expressed about the over-emphasis on journal names in research evaluation practices (see the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), for example:

There has been some concern in the biology community that preprint repositories facilitate the dissemination of unsound or poorly reported work. However, we see preprint sharing as a valuable initial step in the publishing process, so long as it is clearly indicated to all readers that the work has not been subject to formal peer review. It is also important for authors to ensure that all research reported in preprints meets required ethical standards, such as taking the necessary steps to safeguard patient data.

Our support and encouragement for preprint deposition is in line with the recent call for publishers to make vital research rapidly and openly available during a public health emergency. As a signatory on the statement published by the Wellcome Trust on February 10, we support the mechanism by which preprint publication allows the research community to communicate important findings as soon as possible. We see no reason why these practices should not be applied to science as a whole and encourage all authors to adopt this approach.