By Jan Velterop
On January 19, 2017, something remarkable happened. A preprint with the title “A Data Citation Roadmap for Scientific Publishers1” was posted on bioRχiv, the preprint server of Cold Spring Harbor. Posting of preprints on bioRχiv happens all the time, so that is not the remarkable thing. What is remarkable is the fact that the lead (and corresponding) author has ‘Elsevier’ as her affiliation. I see this as a hopeful sign. As I argued before, preprints may well turn out to be a solution to the fact that much of the scientific literature is not shared as openly, as widely, and as quickly as possible, because it is being ‘held hostage’ by most researchers’ need to obtain a form of formal recognition by having their work published in a peer-reviewed journal for the purpose of their career prospects.
The solution being that communicating and sharing research results on the one hand and formal publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the other hand, could be separate and parallel processes.
There have recently been several developments that make me optimistic that this model of separating sharing and formal recognition may come about. And if even authors affiliated with traditional publishers choose to post a preprint, instead of waiting until a peer-reviewed journal accepts their paper, my optimism is only increasing. Of course, pressure from six or seven of the co-authors may have informed the decision to post a preprint first of the article mentioned above, but nonetheless, this is one of the encouraging developments.
Other developments include the announcement, on 10 January 20172, by the Wellcome Trust, the prominent, independent, global charitable foundation, which funds over 14,000 life-and medical researchers in more than 70 countries, that they now accept preprints in grant applications. The Wellcome Trust is not alone. Also the Medical Research Council (MRC) of the UK supports preprints3.
Preprints have already existed for a long time. Even pre-internet. Before the emergence of the internet, from the late 1950s onward, they were simply printed, and sent out by mail to interested researchers and libraries, well before the articles were peer-reviewed and published in a journal. That happened, however, only in the area of physics. This pre-internet practice, and the physics community’s familiarity with the concept, led to the development of the first electronic preprint server, set up in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg at the Los Alamos National Laboratories (it later moved to Cornell University). For a long time, the physics preprint server was the only one – though it gradually covered disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, and statistics as well. The concept of preprints, however, has meanwhile also caught on in other disciplines. And not just in the natural sciences; in the social sciences and humanities there are now several preprint servers, too, a development undoubtedly helped by the availability of the Open Science Framework (OSF) platform, which is built with open source software.
At a recent conference in Berlin, Jessica Polka, director of ASAPbio, “the initiative to promote the productive use of preprints in the life sciences”, presented a slide4 that nicely visualises the growth of preprints. It is not even showing all the preprint servers that exist, as various people have pointed out, but even so, it shows a very clear trend.
The developments with regard to preprints are important, as they do – at least in my opinion – present a solution, not only to the problem of delayed and pay-walled (that is, not universally accessible) publication of research results, but also to the problem of some research results not being published at all, primarily due to lack of interest of journals to accept them. This is the case, for instance, for so-called null-results or negative results. Such results are far more important than is generally realised, as information about, for instance, the lack of efficacy of a drug or medical procedure is crucial to clinical practitioners. Preprints can be, but don’t have to be subsequently published in a journal. With regard to this, Nature is reporting that “a geneticist’s decision not to publish his finalized preprint in a journal gets support from scientists”5. Some benefits and consequences of a broad usage of preprints have been discussed, and potential concerns alleviated, in an earlier post on SciELO in Perspective, by By Ernesto Spinak, under the title “What’s the deal with preprints?”6.
SciELO, pioneer of open access publishing in Latin America since 1997 (earlier than most other open access publishing initiatives), is in the process of establishing a preprint server as well. It’s a natural development for SciELO. Obviously, their motivation is not to provide open access, as they have already done that for almost twenty years. SciELO’s plans are driven by the need for speeding up the publication process and enhancing its transparency. And, of course, by its culture of – and desire to – continuously pushing for meaningful innovation.
1. COUSIJN, H., et al. A Data Citation Roadmap for Scientific Publishers [online]. bioRχiv. 2017. Preprint [viewed on 24 January 2017]. DOI: 10.1101/100784. Available from: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/01/19/100784
2. We now accept preprints in grant applications [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://wellcome.ac.uk/news/we-now-accept-preprints-grant-applications
3. The MRC supports preprints [online]. Medical Research Council (MRC). 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.mrc.ac.uk/news/browse/the-mrc-supports-preprints/
4. ASAPbio is a scientist-driven initiative to promote the productive use of preprints in the life sciences [online]. ASAPbio. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://asapbio.org
5. CHAWLA, D.S. When a preprint becomes the final paper. Nature [online]. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/when-a-preprint-becomes-the-final-paper-1.21333
6. SPINAK, E. What’s the deal with preprints? [online], SciELO in Perspective, 2016. [viewed 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/11/22/whats-the-deal-with-preprints
ASAPbio is a scientist-driven initiative to promote the productive use of preprints in the life sciences [online]. ASAPbio. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://asapbio.org
CHAWLA, D.S. When a preprint becomes the final paper. Nature [online]. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/when-a-preprint-becomes-the-final-paper-1.21333
COUSIJN, H., et al. A Data Citation Roadmap for Scientific Publishers [online]. bioRχiv. 2017. Preprint [viewed on 24 January 2017]. DOI: 10.1101/100784. Available from: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/01/19/100784
PEASE, J. Open Access in the Physics Community before the Internet: Preprints [online]. Syracuse University Libraries Blogs, 2016 [viewed 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://library-blog.syr.edu/drs/2016/03/24/open-access-in-the-physics-community-before-the-internet-preprints/
SPINAK, E. What’s the deal with preprints? [online], SciELO in Perspective, 2016. [viewed 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/11/22/whats-the-deal-with-preprints
The MRC supports preprints [online]. Medical Research Council (MRC). 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.mrc.ac.uk/news/browse/the-mrc-supports-preprints/
VELTEROP, J. The best of both worlds [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016. [viewed 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/06/13/the-best-of-both-worlds
We now accept preprints in grant applications [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2017 [viewed on 24 January 2017]. Available from: http://wellcome.ac.uk/news/we-now-accept-preprints-grant-applications
Open Science Framework – <http://osf.io>
About Jan Velterop
Jan Velterop (1949), marine geophysicist who became a science publisher in the mid-1970s. He started his publishing career at Elsevier in Amsterdam. in 1990 he became director of a Dutch newspaper, but returned to international science publishing in 1993 at Academic Press in London, where he developed the first country-wide deal that gave electronic access to all AP journals to all institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom (later known as the BigDeal). He next joined Nature as director, but moved quickly on to help get BioMed Central off the ground. He participated in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2005 he joined Springer, based in the UK as Director of Open Access. In 2008 he left to help further develop semantic approaches to accelerate scientific discovery. He is an active advocate of BOAI-compliant open access and of the use of microattribution, the hallmark of so-called “nanopublications”. He published several articles on both topics.
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