Welcome to LeafSpring, an anonymized advice blog by a group of scientists on the tenure track. Send your questions to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com

Aug 17, 2016

How can preprints help my career?

Dear Leafspring,

I see discussion from senior biologists about the benefits of preprints. As a faculty member just starting my lab in a biological science, will preprints help me or hurt me?

Unsure on Preprints

Dear UP,

We can't tell you yet if preprints will help your career or harm it. We do think that there are substantial benefits to preprints in the overall process of science. We'll initially cover some baseline information about preprints, and then we'll talk about how, in our own experience, a new lab can maximize their benefits from the preprints that they post.

Why are preprints coming on to the scene now in biology?

  • Problem: The publication process today takes longer now than ever before with an increase in the number of supplemental figures, supplemental figure panels and number of authors included per manuscript. This slows the communication of data, increases time required for training and delays evidence of productivity required for grants/promotion.
  • Solution: Preprints are manuscripts posted for free on servers with open access for the world-wide scientific community and the public. They are given a digital object identifier (DOI) and are citable.
  • History: The arXiv (pronounced archive) is a preprint server for the Physics, Mathematics and quantitative science communities started in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg. It has long been in use in these communities for the rapid communication of scientific articles along side traditional journal publication. Additional preprint servers have been developed more recently to serve the life sciences such as Peer J Preprints, F1000 Research and the BioRxiv.

What are some benefits of preprints?

  1. In career advancement, training, and education:

    • A manuscript simultaneously submitted to a preprint server and submitted to a journal can gain visibility and feedback from the scientific community during the time required for journals to receive reviews from referees.
    • The increased visibility of preprints can lead to invitations for seminars and conferences earlier than if communication is delayed until a peer reviewed publication is available.
    • Publishing a preprint on a community-recognized public server can establish priority for a discovery.
    • Preprints can provide evidence of productivity to complete training, for hiring/promotion and in funding applications; note that preprints are usually found automatically by Google Scholar and can also be placed on BioSketches, so they can be part of your official record.
    • Authors report increased feedback on their preprinted work.
    • Authors report being approached by journal editors to submit preprints for journal consideration.
  2. For funders, journals, servers, and tool-builders:

    • Preprints are immediately open access and therefore can enhance the impact of funded science.
    • Funding agencies can judge productivity more effectively with preprints than when researchers go through different processes in manuscript submission and revision.
    • Increasingly, journals are allowing submission of manuscripts previously posted as preprints. Some examples of preprint friendly journals are Science, Nature, PNAS, Journal of Neuroscience, PLoS journals, Journal of Cell Biology, Genetics and EMBO. Notable exceptions that deal with preprints on a case by case basis are Cell Press journals. A partial list of preprint friendly journals can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_journals_by_preprint_policy but the most up to date information will be on author instruction pages on invididual journal websites.
    • Preprints are indexed for Google Scholar, Pre-pubmed and search.Biopreprint to varying degrees. They are not indexed for MEDLINE and therefore are not searchable through Pubmed. Preprints can however be included on the My Bibliography page of My NCBI.
  3. For the scientific research community:

    • Immediate availibility of preprints speeds the communication and therefore the advancement of science.
    • If a culture of public critical discussion is established around preprints, this process could supplement the traditional closed peer review process.
    • The members of the scientific community most interested in a manuscript can discuss it before publication occurs, potentially identifying issues in advance to improve the quality of the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

What are potential drawbacks?

  • Scooping: Preprints may not be considered by all as establishing priority and readers may utilize ideas from your preprint in a publication prior to your manuscript being accepted for publication.
  • Journal Review: Journal reviewers may see negative comments on preprints as cause to reject manuscripts for publication.
  • Bad Science: Preprint servers may be flooded with incremental data in order to inappropriately establish priority.
  • Quality proxy: It is difficult to tell the quality of non peer-reviewed work outside of one's field without a journal's stamp of approval.

So, UP, what does that mean for you as a researcher just starting out? We have a few recommendations:

  • Preprints, on balance, provide benefits for people at the early stage of their career. These individuals may have no other items moving through the peer-review pipeline and need to show productivity quickly. For this reason, we'd encourage you to participate in the process for now, while keeping an eye on how these contributions are recognized.
  • When you submit a preprint, we'd encourage you to make it a solid one. Preprints become part of the scientific record, and all preprinted versions are maintained. Developing a reputation for limited rigor in research can be harmful in other situations, and we think that the permanence of preprints entail some risk in this regard. Be your own harsh peer reviewer, even with preprints.
  • Advertise your preprint. This is a case where you won't have the brand name of a journal promoting your work. Share your preprint in twitter, send it to your colleagues, and when you give a talk, highlight that the work is available. Invite people to comment, and take their feedback to heart. Feedback on preprints provides the opportunity to do additional experiments pointed out by the community if they further strengthen your contribution.

Finally, if you feel that you want to support preprints, there are a number of ways to get involved:

  • Many people are unaware preprints exist. Trainees can bring up the topic to their PIs. PIs can bring up the topic at faculty meetings or cross-department committee meetings.
  • Submitting a preprint or providing feedback to authors on preprints will promote their usage.
  • Mentioning preprints at the end of a seminar or conference presentation can increase visibility of this mechanism.
  • The Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio) organization promotes preprints in the life sciences. One can volunteer to be an institutional ambassador for ASAPbio (http://asapbio.org/asapbio-ambassadors).