Preprints are not a standard practice in biology. Nowadays, most papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals were not uploaded to a public preprint server.
Maybe this is changing? It looks like preprints are starting to take off. It’s not clear if this is a wave that will sweep the culture of the field, or just a growing practice among a small subset. Nowadays, the preprint site bioRχiv is now getting more than 1000 papers per month. (I imagine that a lot of these will end up in peer-reviewed venues at some point.)
If you’re not familiar with preprints, here’s the deal, at least from my perspective: Some folks want to share their scientific papers with the world without having to wait for formalized peer review. There are a bunch of organizations that have cropped up to help facilitate this. For physics and some related fields, arΧiv has been doing this for a long time, so that it’s often standard practice to upload a paper there before it goes to review. (By the way, the Χ is the chi symbol, so it’s pronounced “archive.” Cute, eh?) There are a lot of ways that publishing in physics is really different than biology, so it might make sense to me why preprints have long been a thing for them, and not for us, though of course some of these differences are purely cultural.
Preprints are part of the holy hexagon in the faith of “Open Science.” That means there’s no shortage of folks who are glad to evangelize about the wonderfulness of preprints. So I don’t need to rehash this for you in any detail as you can readily find a more detailed case. But a short list might include: letting you share your stuff without having to wait for peer review, allowing good-natured peers (and anybody else) to provide feedback outside of the traditional peer review process, increasing visibility and maybe citations, and establishing priority to prevent scooping (though “open science” folks have often told me that scooping isn’t a substantive issue, when it comes to public data archival). I’m sure I’m missing out on other positives.
Not everybody is jazzed about preprints. Some of this is hashed out in a recent Wired article. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for folks to want to upload their preprints (as long as they aren’t going around telling other people what to do, which, frankly, is not unexpected when it comes to advocates for this kind of stuff). Let me tell you why I’m not bothering with preprints.
- I don’t mind waiting a few months or a couple years for people to see my paper. If there’s anybody who I want to find out about my stuff right away, then I’ll send it to them. I don’t think I’m making the world suffer by waiting a little longer than they’re already waiting.
- I don’t expect that I’ll get more or better peer review by using preprints than using other approaches.
- I want my papers to have a single (and better) version available to the public. Let’s say I have manuscript that I’m ready to submit to a journal. And so I upload the preprint and submit it at the same time. Then, the peer reviews from the journal come back with editorial remarks. And I then make some changes that improve the paper. Then that one will get published. So now, the world has access to this paper that’s not as good? Why would I want this? Can I avoid this by not posting a preprint? Yay!
- I’d prefer a paper to splash than trickle out. If I have a paper that’s interesting and exciting, and then I want to be able to share this once the legit peer-reviewed version comes out.
- I might have fucked up in a paper, and maybe I don’t want to outsource the detection of this fuckup to the entire world? And I might not want to expose my student coauthors to this possibility?
- I think preprints exacerbate the malady of careerism that makes it difficult for junior scientists to treat science like a normal job. To get ahead in academia, you gotta do MORE! FASTER! BIGGER! and it feels like the epitome of this is the need to magically publish your papers before they get published. I think preprint advocates might think that they are a prescription to fix the rat race, but I think it just puts the rats in a more convoluted maze. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
- If preprints do become the norm, then there’ll be a ton of crappy preprints with unsubstantiated results and highly flawed experimental designs that wouldn’t get past the editorial process of a legit journal. But I’m sure every single one of you reads every scientific paper from start to finish and comprehensively decides whether the methods were sound and the analyses were robust before citing it.
- If I were to create a list of 100 things that we should be changing about how we do and publish science, preprints wouldn’t be on my list. So until it becomes the norm, I’ll fuss over things that matter more to me.
So, this is why I’m not bothering with it. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few months or a few years.