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Question of the month- preprint servers

Posted by , on 24 February 2016

Last week saw ASAPbio, a meeting that discussed the role that preprints can play in the life sciences (for a an introduction to preprints check out this video or this wikipedia page).  Those of you on twitter will have followed the #ASAPbio discussion with interest,  and the footage of the conference is now available online. What is your experience: have you deposited your manuscript on a preprint service like bioRxiv? If not, have you considered doing so, and what would persuade/deter you? This month we are asking:

What is the value of preprint servers in Biology?


Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below! You can comment anonymously if you prefer. We are also collating answers on social media via this Storify. And if you have any ideas for future questions please drop us an email!

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Categories: Discussion

4 thoughts on “Question of the month- preprint servers”

  1. So Ruben is what you’re saying “why publish at all if not to share our findings thereby accelerating research”? That’s a good point. Putting aside the rather cynical reason of career advancement, isn’t the number one reason and benefit of publishing the advancement of science? If one believes that, then one must also believe that any system that allows the sharing of scientific data sooner, more efficiently and for free will help further this cause.

    The value of preprints for the greater good is hard to rebuff – most people accept that it IS an overwhelmingly good thing for science. The question I am interested in asking is what is the value of uploading preprints for you personally? Will you list them in your CV or grant? Would you consider them when reviewing someone else’s CV or grant? Also, what’s stopping you from uploading preprints? Are you scared you could still get scooped?

    For me, I know that I have generated data from a previous postdoc that will never see the light of publication day. It happened because I had to quit my postdoc for personal reasons and no one was able to continue my work. And I know that this is not uncommon – many students and postdocs generate good quality data that, for many different reasons, will never get published. This seems very wasteful; both of the data itself as well as the time, money and effort it took to generate it. Could preprints help offset this waste? Definitely. Could they also give a researcher something tangible to show for their work, something more meaningful than “manuscript in preparation”? Certainly, yes. And, getting back to the greater good, will posting preprints help advance science at a greater rate than previously seen? Absolutely.

    That’s what I see as the primary value of preprints. What about the rest of you?

  2. I completely agree with what Caroline is saying, but I would also make a plea for the value of ‘traditional’ journals alongside preprint servers. It was interesting to see that the ASAPbio discussion, as well as heaping deserved praise on the likes of bioRxiv for providing a valuable author service, highlighted some of the things that preprint servers can’t (or at least don’t) do. Quite aside from selecting papers based on their ‘impact’ or ‘conceptual advance’ (which I happen to believe is a useful service, but which is a discussion for another day), journals – or at least good journals – do a lot of valuable things that don’t come cheap.

    So, here are some of the things I think are important:

    – Peer review. I’ve seen all the arguments that we can just do post-publication peer review, but the fact is that nobody does it. At least not yet. Maybe this will take off, but I’m yet to be convinced. And I’m particularly unconvinced whether you’ll get the real experts commenting.

    – Ensure appropriate experimental and reporting standards. While we like to think that this is something that will be done by the authors (or could be achieved by post-publication commenting), lots of papers have missing/inappropriate controls, incomplete methods etc. Many of these things get picked up pre-publication – giving confidence that the published work is at least more likely to be trustworthy. If you lose that, there’s the danger that more shaky science will get reported as ‘fact’.

    – Ethics checking. bioRxiv screens for plagiarism, which is great, but what about checking for figure manipulation, statistical issues etc? OK so not all journals are all that good at these things either, but we’re getting better, and it’s certainly not something that can be done for free.

    – Copy-editing. Again, not all journals copy-edit papers these days, but I do believe that it’s a really important service – and not just to ensure your sentences flow and your commas are in the right place. For example, Development’s copy editors check every gene or protein name in a paper and make sure it matches the official database name – ensuring your paper will come up in PubMed or Google searches, and that it gets properly curated by those databases.

    – Layout. Yes PDFs could be seen as old-fashioned, but people still download and read them. And they do that because it’s a nicer experience reading a well-laid out paper with high quality figures than it is reading HTML or author versions of manuscripts.

    – Publicising your paper. I know that most people find papers through search these days, but journals will help you get the word out there about your paper – through press releases, article highlights, social media and other routes. And they’re often very good at doing those things, because they pay good people to help do it!

    These are just some of the important functions fulfilled by a journal and part of my answer to ‘what’s the value of publishing…?’. If you want to see more, check out Lenny Teytelman’s recent post on the topic ( or, for a more publisher-centric view that lists every possible facet you can imagine, this post from the Scholarly Kitchen:

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