Preprints and science news

I’ve written before about preprints and science news. That blogpost was occasioned by the open letter last summer from Fiona Fox at the Science Media Centre on the subject, and the follow-up comment piece by Tom Sheldon in Nature. Mine was just one of several responses, most of which sought to defend preprints from the perceived attack. The discussion served to demonstrate that preprints have become an important part of the biomedical research publishing scene, albeit still a small part.

It seems to me though that there is still an unanswered question about how preprints and science reporting will co-exist. That is why I have organised a meeting this week for open Research London on this topic. The speakers will be Tom Sheldon, Clare Ryan, Robin Lovell-Badge, Teresa Rayon Alonso. Tom is from the Science Media Centre and leads their work on preprints.  Clare is Head of Media Relations at the Wellcome Trust – an organisation that is a strong supporter of open access and preprints. Robin is a senior group leader at the Francis Crick Institute who has extensive media experience and is on the advisory board of PLOS.  Teresa is a postdoc at the Crick and a preprint summariser at preLights; she co-authored a response to Tom Sheldon’s article.

I think it will be an interesting evening and there are still a few tickets left but you need to register.  The event will not be streamed but we aim to record it.

I think it’s an interesting topic as it’s new, but also quite an old conversation, or rather two old conversations that are coming together. There have been endless conversations about the value or otherwise of embargoes in science news reporting – I remember them going back to 2009 but I’m sure they go back further. There have also been endless conversations about peer review and whether preprints in biomedicine are a good thing – I remember them going back to 1999 but again they certainly go back further.

I would summarise the problem as a series of mutually incompatible premises:

  1. Science benefits from preprints (speeding up communications)
  2. Science benefits from news reports (keeping science in the public eye)
  3. Embargoes are necessary for good science news reporting
  4. Preprints are incompatible with embargoes

There are a few other issues involved, but to my mind these are at the core of the problem.

At this point I had intended to write a magisterial overview of everything written on the subject, but time has run out so I will just include a few pointers to other writings and discussions.

On embargoes

I first heard the arguments about embargoes during a discussion at the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2009, nicely summarised by Ed Yong. There was another discussion at their conference four years later.

In 2016 noted embargo-watcher Ivan Oransky gave a brief history of embargoes and suggests they are no longer useful, but Vivian Siegel maintained they were still needed.

A rather different idea for reforming science news reporting was suggested by John Rennie following the Science Online conference in 2011.

On preprints

Matthew Cobb Traces the history of preprints in biology back to the 1960s in a very thorough article in PLOS Biology.  I still remember the lively discussion that took place in 1999 following Harold Varmus’ E-Biomed proposal.  An addendum to the proposal provided responses to some of the key issues raised in discussion.

On preprints and embargoes

I started out by saying that the issue of how to reconcile preprints and embargoes was an unanswered question, but there has been some discussion of the matter.

The (US) National Association of Science Writers held a meeting last autumn, bringing together journalists, press officers and journal editors. The conversations were summarised in a Google doc. Avren Keating observed:

In the end, there were more questions raised than answers, though a couple of messages did surface. Journalists, it was argued, are moving faster than the PIO community in adapting to preprints. The audience also believed journalists should take the same skeptical rigor they use to judge preprints of newsworthiness and apply that rigor to peer-reviewed research.

The future is now: How science communicators can adapt to preprints

A post on the STEMPRA blog last year by Claire Hastings mulls over the issue and comes up with some possible solutions, though for my money her solutions have the flavour of trying to turn the tide back.

Another blogpost from last year suggests that “Journalists Need to Adapt to Preprints, Not Ignore Them“.

I suspect that there’ll be a good deal more discussion to come about preprints and embargoes. I hope the event on 6 Feb 2019 will be a useful forum for informed discussion.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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