In a recent piece on Science, Jocelyn Kaiser nicely highlights the reasons why the first 12 months of biorRxiv can be considered a success. Twitter has been echoing of messages of appraisal. I had in mind to write about biorRxiv for a while now, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. So here are my $ 0.02.
Life Sciences hides a dinosaur.
The practice of publishing in open access journals has come to Life Sciences with a fair bit of delay. In particular, the use of preprint servers other disciplines are so familiar with seems to have eluded Life Sciences, like a good film showing on TV while everyone is busy cooking in the kitchen. Checking the list of disciplines represented on the arXiv.org homepage is overwhelming evidence of this delay. To be fair, there are reasons to believe this was a deliberate decision more than a lack of awareness, most notably the concern that disclosing data of long-running and very expensive projects before these are ready for publication (or published altogether) exposes to the risk of being scooped. There are very competitive areas of research in which this is a major concern. And none likes to be second.
A small mammal, more than a dinosaur.
Life Sciences-oriented open access publication initiatives as PLOSBiology, FrontiersIn, BioMedCentral and eLife gave a good shake to the system. Thanks to their (and others’) efforts, it is finally common sense that a piece of research done for everyone (and often financed by ‘everyone’) has to be released for everyone to read, rather than kept from the general public by restricting its availability to ‘experts’ only. At the same time, such initiatives challenge the concept of ‘impact’ and the way this is measured, thus targeting the very foundations of the current, tiered, publication model. ** In parallel, the implementation of open data policies (on platforms as FigShare, DataDryad, etc) facilitates the release and reuse of raw data. The advantages for reproducibility, conducting aggregated studies and validation are obvious. Life Sciences is not lagging behind, and discussion is already happening beyond the publication stage (try, e.g., to search for ‘biochemistry‘ in PubPeer). Why do I still feel a sense of unease then?
Back to the Present.
Personally, I get frustrated by the time that goes between the completion of a project and its publication. Despite my best efforts at discussing with colleagues, keeping in touch with collaborators, acting as reviewer, editor and being part of scientific societies, I am aware of a minuscule fraction (at best!) of the results being achieved in my area of research today (OK, let’s say this month).
It was thus with great pleasure that, earlier this year, I came across bioRxiv. No more hiding, results can be shared as soon as they are written in an intelligible form. Manuscript deposited get a permanent DOI, thus being chronologically ‘imprinted’ in the scientific literature. And there is more: people can share their thought on manuscripts before they are even submitted. And get credits. I know for sure, it happened to me. It thus seemed like a good idea to keep an eye on submissions and use this blog to comment on preprints, or sometimes just ‘advertise’ them (similar to what haldanessieve does already). It was a pleasant surprise to notice that these efforts results in traffic from bioRxiv: blog posts are referenced almost immediately (see e.g. here). The architecture needed for a positive feedback between readers and authors is in place. Submissions seem to be increasing steadily across the panel of available categories (see table). I should be pleased, both personally (i.e. narcissistically) and scientifically.
More public discussion please
Researchers still seem to favour private methods of discussion over public ones. Of the comments I left on bioRxiv, enthusiastic emails were exchanged only once I contacted the authors directly (either via email or twitter). No-one really expects public discussion forums (as the one bioRxiv provides) to work. Shame. It’s like attending a conference to present your work, then splitting the audience in n groups of 1. Sure, you can get many individual feedbacks, but very little discussion.
To me, the challenge ahead for scientific publishing (in its broader definition) is to improve the public discussion of research, independently on its publication stage. This idea has been widely discussed on blogs, tweets and news outlets already. Still, I believe bioRxiv has the opportunity (if not the responsibility) to foster discussion pre publication. The kind of discussion that can make a paper better before it is submitted, and at the same time speed up the flow of information between researchers. The database is there, ways to reward discussion are already in place (Publons, citable posts, DOIs, altmetric, etc), a core number of researchers is clearly interested. On your marks.
** In my opinion, however, the impact factor dominance can be successfully addressed only if grant/faculty evaluation committees can be induced to abandon it. But this is a topic for another post