Webinar Report: Supporting preprints in the life sciences

Explore the new initiatives that are helping preprints to make a bigger impact.

Moderator: Brianne Kent, Chair of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group and Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia.
Speakers: Samantha Hindle, Content Lead at bioRxiv and co-Founder of PREreview; Mate Palfy, Community Manager at preLights; and Bernd Pulverer, Chief Editor at The EMBO Journal.

By preprinting a manuscript on a dedicated open platform, authors make their paper available to the community before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. In the life sciences, preprints are a relatively new endeavor: where are we now, how do institutions support this effort, and what is left to be done?

Growing pains

“The number of preprints has been growing exponentially since bioRxiv launched in 2013”, explains Mate Palfy. In parallel, journals have started to adopt measures to alleviate early concerns, such as not being able to submit a manuscript that had been preprinted. In fact, certain publications, like EMBO, have designed policies to address worries about being ‘scooped’ when preprinting papers, and how to cite preprints.

Yet, certain uncertainties are still not fully addressed, such as preprints ‘splitting citations’. Because preprint citations are not necessarily recorded in the citation count of the published paper, the latter can appear as being less cited that it actually is – even though releasing results early can help to get one’s work taken up by the community. That said, Google Scholar does merge citations between preprints and manuscripts.

Do people comment on preprints?

“One of the benefits of preprints is that authors can get feedback on their manuscripts and improve it before publication, but preprint feedback is not that common at the moment,” explains Samantha Hindle. Indeed, on bioRxiv, only around 8-10% of preprints have comments associated with them.

However, this number may be the tip of the iceberg. Pulverer cites the experience of arXiv, the preprint server for mathematics and physics: “They found that a lot of the commenting happens peer to peer, directly through emails or maybe now extended to Twitter.”

Beyond commenting: an opportunity for training peer reviewers

New initiatives also aim to increase engagement with preprints and widen their impact. For example, PREreview helps to develop preprint journal clubs, which bring together scientists (in person or online) to discuss a preprint; the feedback is then shared with the authors in a written report.

“These preprint journal clubs are really a win-win situation,” explains Hindle. The authors of the preprints get in-depth comments and the chance to present an improved version of their work to the community. In turn, the reviewers in the journal clubs get trained in the peer review process, an opportunity that early-career researchers often lack.

Preprints… so many preprints

Because of the exponential growth of preprints, “it [is] challenging for scientists to go through this literature,” Palfy points out. So preLights “helps scientists find the most interesting preprints.” In this highlighting service a group of volunteer scientists, or ‘preLighters’, selects remarkable preprints and writes a short report about each that summarizes the results and underlines their importance.

For Pulverer, initiatives like preLights “could really change the ballgame. If preLights becomes more systematic […] it could become a bit of a shopping mall. Journals could look at a preLight, and the comments made in PREreview, and encourage the authors to submit.”

Maintaining preprint quality

“Almost everything you see on bioRxiv is excellent quality. It’s actually amazing how self selecting the system is,” reflects Pulverer. Yet with the growth of preprints, quality checks are increasingly needed. With better quality controls and ethics checks – for example, looking for altered images – preprints could be taken more seriously. In the meantime, as Hindle explains, bioRxiv is already discussing internally how to withdraw preprints.

What’s next?

In Pulverer’s opinion, to go further with preprints, “we need credits systems. To encourage people to engage with PREreview and preLights, and to start posting preprints, it has to start to matter for people’s research career. The journals have started embracing preprints, and the funders need to embrace them now.” Yet, Hindle reminds us that the scientific community, with early-career researchers at its forefront, can also make a difference: “Get out there, find more people that are like minded, and really try to make a change.”

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