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EDBC 2019: preprints workshop

Posted by , on 21 November 2019

For the first time in 20 years, researchers from across the continent gathered for the European Developmental Biology Congress in Alicante, Spain (October 23-26 2019). Fortunately, we won’t have to wait another 20 years for the next one – it will be held next in the UK in 2023. But in addition to a fantastic program of talks and posters, friendly networking opportunities and the biggest pan of paella I’ve ever seen, the Congress also featured a pre-meeting workshop on preprints, organised by Teresa Rayon (postdoc at The Francis Crick Institute and preLighter).

Teresa put together a panel of researchers and publishers to talk about the value of preprints to the community and how they might change scientific publishing. While, unfortunately, the weather prevented panel member Sofia Araujo (IRB Barcelona) from making it on time to introduce the session, Teresa stepped in to kick off what we hope was a useful session for those attending. Here, I summarise some of the key points and take-home messages from the session, and also invite you to take part in the survey (click on the link!) that Sofia and Teresa put together for the workshop. You can see the results from the people that filled it in during the session below, but we’d be interested in gathering more feedback from the community on how you use preprints.

The first encouraging outcome from the discussion was to find that all publishers/journals represented in the panel (The Company of Biologists, PLOS, EMBO Press, Developmental Biology and Mechanisms of Development) are fully supportive of preprints. As Monica Lodi (Publisher at Elsevier) explained, Developmental Biology and Mechanisms of Development – two of the journals she looks after – are fully preprint-friendly: authors can share their preprint anywhere at any time without compromising potential publication in the journals (though it’s worth noting that – while most journals now consider papers that have been printed – some do have restrictions on posting of revised manuscripts). The PLOS, EMBO Press and Company of Biologists journals also all facilitate simultaneous submission of papers to the journal and bioRxiv. And the EMBO Press journals, represented here by Ieva Gailite (Editor, The EMBO Journal) have even extended their ‘scooping protection policy’ to the point at which a preprint is submitted (within reason – see here for more details). As raised in the discussion, many editors are now actively scouting for potential submissions of preprints by browsing through bioRxiv or social media, though the ever-growing volume of the preprint literature limits the extent to which this can efficiently be done at most journals.

Despite a long history in the physical sciences, preprints have only recently made an impact in life sciences publishing. I gave a brief overview of The Company of Biologists’ history with preprints. Over the past 5 years, we’ve had a complete turnaround in policy – from considering preprint deposition as prior publication through to integrating fully with bioRxiv, encouraging preprinting and launching preLights – more on which later). In 2018, well over 10% of papers submitted to Development were co-submitted to bioRxiv. Many publishers have a difficult relationship with the preprint literature: it has the potential to disrupt both our models of peer review and our financial business models. But we also recognise the value for our communities, and preprints open the door to interesting new ventures – like preLights and Review Commons (more on this later too). I also outlined how preprints might change our current publishing system – by separating out dissemination of research results from their validation through peer review, by providing opportunities for new publication models (community peer review, overlay journals, journal-agnostic peer review), and potentially by accelerating the transition to Open Access (as preprints are generally free to read).

Talking of Open Access, Ines Alvarez-Garcia (Senior Editor, PLOS Biology) provided an overview of the principles of Plan S, the Open Access initiative from a group of (mainly European) funding agencies, and what they could mean for researchers. You can find the full list of Plan S principles here, and plenty more information about their implementation online, but the bottom line is that Plan S wants all research funded by its signatories to be published in fully Open Access journals or platforms (or in journals with a clear plan to transition to Open Access) from 2021 onwards. This is challenging for many journals, but publishers are working on ways of ensuring that authors can still publish in the journals of their choice, regardless of funding source.

EMBO have long been proponents of increased transparency in publishing, and are now integrating with bioRxiv to display peer review reports of papers under consideration at EMBO Press journals on bioRxiv – part of a new initiative from bioRxiv called Transparent Review in Preprints (TRiP for short). Both EMBO Press and eLife are trialling TRiP, whereby authors can choose to post the referee reports from the journal (whether the paper was accepted or rejected) alongside the preprint. Finally, Ieva introduced Review Commons, a journal-independent peer review platform that aims to reduce the time authors spend re-submitting their paper to multiple journals and focus reviewers’ attention objectively on the science rather than the ‘fit’ for a particular journal, while reducing the total reviewing burden. Both PLOS and The Company of Biologists (along with a number of other journals) are partnering with EMBO and ASAPbio on Review Commons, which should launch later this year.

After these publisher perspectives, two researchers gave their thoughts on the rise of preprints. Jesus Victorino, a PhD student in Miguel Manzanares’ lab and- like Teresa – a preLighter, focussed on the time taken for papers to be published and the problems this can cause particularly for early career researchers – who may need their work in the public domain quickly to apply for the next position. He also pointed out that, as we all know, peer review is not perfect, and that reading the preprint literature can make you think more deeply about the validity of a particular piece of research. Finally, he explained what he gets out of being involved with preLights: improving his writing skills, interacting with the authors of preprints he writes about, and engaging with the preLights community.

The final perspective came from Fernando Casares, a PI at the CABD in Seville. Fernando’s support for preprints was summed up in 5 points:

  • Communication: a primary purpose of science is to communicate your results and preprints allow you to do this quickly, and to promote your work to your network and beyond.
  • Priority: once the preprint is online, this gives you a claim to the discovery – even if it then takes some time for the paper to be published.
  • Material for grant proposals or job applications: means the people assessing you can actually see the work you’ve done rather than just taking your word for it.
  • As a ‘psychological aid’: it can take a long time to go from submission of a paper to acceptance, and this can be pretty demoralising. At least if the preprint is out, there’s proof – for yourself as much as anyone else – that the work is done.
  • To allow publication of otherwise ‘unpublishable’ work: data that would be hard to get formally published or where it’s not worth the effort to do so. Fernando pointed out that there are some places where people are assessed based on the average citation rate of papers they’ve published – in these cases, you might be cynically better off not publishing the work you think is unlikely to cite well. This isn’t good for science or the community, so at least you could make preprints available for work like this.

Fernando’s final point brought up the issue of how research and researchers are assessed – something we returned to in the discussion session. Clearly, the obsession with where you publish and how well you’re cited is a problem in research assessment – but not one that any of us have real solutions for at this point. But there is a movement to promote better practices, and if you’ve not heard of DORA, or read some of their case studies, I’d encourage you to take a look.

The discussion that followed the brief presentations from each panellist ranged from the practicalities of Review Commons to the economics of quality publishing, and from submission policies through to whether we still need journals in the age of preprinting (short answer – yes! – if you ask me anyway…!). Huge thanks to Teresa for organising the session and to everyone who came along. And, as final evidence that preprinting is definitely taking off in our community, take a look at this curated preList of preprints discussed over the course of the EDBC meeting.

And please do complete Teresa and Sofia’s survey!

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