Preprints in the news

I think Fiona Fox’s recent question about preprints and their impact on science news reporting deserves more consideration. She calls for more discussion of the issue and of possible solutions.

Preprints – good

I’ve invested quite a bit of time in supporting the idea that posting preprints should be a normal research practice in biomedical research. I admit that I was sceptical about preprints initially.  Sure it worked for Physics and Economics and people asked “Why can’t it work for biomedicine?”.  But the majority of reactions to Harold Varmus’ 1999 E-Biomed proposal showed that there was a good deal of disquiet among biomedical researchers about the idea of preprints. “Biomedical research is different from physics!” they said.

The growth of quantitative biology preprints in the q-bio section of arXiv showed that preprints could work in biology. In 2013 the founders of bioRxiv thought that preprints could be used more widely in biology, and their optimism has been borne out.  In 2015 Stephen Curry said that biologists should ‘Just do it‘ and they have been, in increasing numbers.

Contents of Prepubmed preprint search tool, June 2018. Jordan Anaya

A recent eLife webinar highlights the excitement about preprints in biology, and the need for more new initiatives. There is still a long way to go before all papers are posted as preprints, but we are seeing a steady increase year on year. Initiatives like ASAPbio highlight the benefits – speed of dissemination, increased feedback and visibility, establishing priority. It would be good to have more data about the benefits to back up the anecdotal accounts.

Infrastructure around preprints has evolved quickly, but I’m not sure it’s on a sustainable basis yet and there is still a need for standards development. I’m looking forward to seeing how bioRxiv develops following the CZI investment and what plans ASAPbio have.  It was good to see recently that Europe PubMedCentral is now indexing preprints.

I think things are moving in the right direction for preprints and expect that in ten years’ time we’ll see many beneficial effects resulting from their adoption.

Preprints – problematic?

I was intrigued therefore to see the blogpost about preprints from Fiona Fox on the Science Media Centre website. Fiona has a good deal of experience in science communication and her insights are always worth reading. Evidently many people people read her post about preprints as there was quite a backlash on Twitter. Her post made three main points about preprints:

  1. They seem to be beneficial for science
  2. They create a difficulty for science journalists
  3. They’re not peer-reviewed and therefore potentially dangerous when it comes to medicine

On the first point, very few will disagree. On the third point, I think many will partially agree too, but I rather thought this potential problem was well understood and on the way to being sorted. Philip Bourne et al’s ‘Ten simple rules to consider regarding preprint submission‘ include this:

This point about potential dangers has been discussed and discussed ad nauseam in the past.  It is being discussed again now as plans for medRxiv are developed and safeguards are being put in place. I don’t think it is an insuperable problem.

Slide from talk by John Inglis, ‘Preprints in Biology and Medicine’

News reporting, preprints, embargoes

For me the most interesting part of Fiona’s blogpost was her point about the difficulties that preprints pose for journalists trying to cover news of scientific advances.

Once an article is accepted by a journal for publication there is usually a period of time before it is published during which it can be sent to journalists ‘under embargo’.  This allows the journalists time to do some background work and prepare their news story. Supporters of the embargo system maintain that it is necessary to ensure high-quality reporting, and to ensure that science stories are seen as ‘newsworthy’.

Preprints currently are not subject to any embargo, but are posted online as soon as they have been through some basic checks. Hence journalists have no time to prepare. If they take the time to interview other researchers and gather opinions about the research in the preprint, then they run the risk that someone else gets into print sooner than them with a story, and their well-researched story might be discarded by a news editor hungry for hot news.

Embargoes divide opinion, but the Science Media Centre is a strong supporter of embargoes in practice. If you hate the embargo system then you might rejoice that preprints may hasten the end of that system.  If you accept that embargoes are good for science reporting, (and that science reporting is good for science) then we need to explore how preprints and good science reporting can work together.

Would it be feasible to have an option of a short embargo period for some preprints – those where press interest is expected / desired? Fiona suggests a number of other possible strategies at the end of her post, but these seem to have been overlooked in the rush to condemn her comments about the dangers of preprints. I think her call for discussion is timely and it’d be good to see proper engagement with it.

Surely we just need to adapt our current approaches to the new kid on the block?Maybe. But I still think we need to use this time to thrash out best practice and agree what the new rules should look like. 

Or is there something we have not thought of that could get us round these new realities with minimum adverse effects? 

The changes being made to a part of the system that was not working are set to have profound knock on effects on another part of the system that works and serves science well. The challenge here is to fix one end without losing the gains we have made in reporting findings to the public in an accurate and measured way.

Extracts from: Fiona Fox, 17 July 2018. The preprint dilemma: good for science, bad for the public? A discussion paper for the scientific community.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
This entry was posted in Communicating science, Preprints, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.