Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How bioRxiv will make journals pay for publishing research papers

Preprint servers are the future of scientific publishing.

There's a detailed article on biological research and the controversies surrounding the bioRxiv preprint server up at The National Post:
After several dozen biologists vowed to rally around preprints at an “ASAPbio’’ meeting last month, [bioRxiv] has had a small surge, and not just from scientists whose august stature protects them from risk. On Twitter, preprint insurgents are celebrating one another’s postings and jockeying for revolutionary credibility.

For most of the history of organized scientific research, the limitations of technology made print journals the chief means of disseminating scientific results. But some #ASAPbio advocates argue that since the rise of the Internet, biologists have been abdicating their duty to the public — which pays for most academic research — by not sharing results as quickly and openly as possible.

Unlike physicists, for whom preprints became a default method of communicating discoveries in the 1990s, biomedical researchers typically wait more than six months to disseminate their work while they submit it — on an exclusive basis — to the most prestigious journal they think might accept it for publication. If, as is often the case, it is rejected, they try another journal. As a result, it can sometimes take years to publish a paper ... and because science is in many ways a relay, with one scientist building on the published work of another, the communication delays almost certainly slow scientific progress.
Yes, paper reviews are slow and definitely consume resources, but they are usually helpful. Later on in the article, there's a bit of fearmongering that preprints will be 'detrimental to science' and that the world will end, etc. but that's coming from editors that are incentivized to keep scientists paying for the review process.

What I'd really like to see in the near future is a model where scientists post their work to bioRxiv to stake claim to something new in their field, and where it's incumbent on journals to bid for the right to accept good papers into the review process. Why shouldn't labs be compensated after the fact for doing high quality research, in addition to being funded in advance as in the current system?

Several factors work for in favor of this model:

  1. Scientists will still preprint research that's of good quality in an effort to receive journal bids. In fact, they'll still have an incentive to produce work that's as high quality as possible.
  2. Journals will still be in a position to offer a proper peer-review for preprints, and in some (most?) cases this means that the version of the paper published by the journal will be of better quality than the pre-print.
  3. Journals won't need staff to deal with inquiries from every researcher thinking that their paper is good enough to review. Instead, scouts will contact labs since they know what's out there.
  4. Excessive resources won't be spent on polishing little papers so that they're 'good enough' for submission to a journal. If someone has one or two interesting figures they can still publish it, get a DOI, and get on with their career.
  5. The corollary of #3 is that the need for a 'Journal of Negative Results' is eliminated. Just preprint the damn results and get a bit of credit for it.

I don't think preprints are the threat that some folks are imagining; on the contrary, they should improve the system at a time when the model of 20th century publishing seems to be broken or at best dysfunctional.

So if you have any other ideas reach out on @CheckmateSci.