Who’s afraid of bioRxiv: Weighing the pros and cons of preprint publishing

14 December 2017

BioRxiv, a free online archive where scientists can post draft papers known as preprints, is causing quite a stir in the world of life sciences. Although sharing papers online before they have been formally peer-reviewed isn’t new – physicists and computer scientists have been doing it for decades – the leap into preprints still gives rise to divided opinions among biologists.

Launched in 2013 by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, bioRxiv currently holds more than 15,000 papers. Proponents of preprint publishing argue that it accelerates the pace of science and improves its quality. Although high-profile scientists have endorsed the system, many biologists remain wary and have only just begun to share their unreviewed papers. Is the shift towards open publishing uncharted territory for you as well? Here are some pros and cons to consider.

Pros

  • Manuscripts are out in the open much faster. They can be cited or commented on immediately, without having to wait for the long review process of traditional scientific journals.
  • Establishing primacy: being the first on bioRxiv gives you the initial recognition of the finding, even if the peer-reviewed publication is later than the competition. This diminishes the opportunity for unscrupulous referees to ‘sit’ on your paper while they rush to get their own version out.
  • Preprint publishing fosters open science: people without access to the official journals can read,
    comment on and cite your work.

Cons

  • Not all journals accept papers that have been submitted to a preprint server. However, many
    journals are updating their policies because of the rising popularity of preprints.
  • Risk of ‘preprint wars’: there is no regulation on checking ‘preprint data’ yet, so it’s not unthinkable that scientists rush to publish similar work after reading a publication in bioRxiv.
  • Risk of embargo violations: if the press publishes results from a preprint server, this might hinder later
    publications in traditional journals.

Q&A with a biRrxiv proponent
The Stein Aerts lab (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) has been using bioRxiv for a
while. Stein and postdoc Sara Aibar Santos, avid believers in the system, share their thoughts and experiences.

How did you start using bioRxiv?
Sara: “Our fields, bioinformatics and genomics, were among the first to deposit preprints in bioRxiv. That’s probably because of the link with physics and mathematics, where preprint publishing has been common practice since the early nineties. BioRxiv helps us find useful papers that aren’t published in peer-reviewed journals until months later. In new and fast-moving fields like ours, that’s very important.”

Why is it interesting for you to submit papers to bioRxiv?
Stein: “When we talk about our methods at conferences, releasing the preprint allows researchers to read more about the validation and parameters of the method. Given the slow process of peer review, bioRxiv lets us reach our audience much faster, which increases our impact. The fact that papers under review are already available for selection committees is also a clear advantage for young researchers that are applying for positions. Some funding agencies even allow researchers to include preprints in grant proposals.”

Your latest paper on bioRxiv was also published in Nature Methods. Did you get any negative feedback from them?
Stein: “No, to the contrary: thanks to our preprint on bioRxiv, we gained early exposure and we felt more protected from being scooped. We also feel that journals are adapting to the new paradigm. Most of them participate in bioRxiv’s manuscript transfer service and some journals even provide scooping protection based on the bioRxiv submission date.”

Do you think life scientists will start using bioRxiv more widely?
Sara: “Although peer review remains necessary, journals are no longer the only way to distribute research results. The co-existence of both channels is causing some confusion now, but I hope that we’ll end up with a more efficient publication process. Preprints will probably remain complementary to journals, but they
put healthy pressure on the traditional channels to improve their system.”

Do you see any disadvantages?
Stein: “Well, although many journals are updating their policies, some may still not like preprint publications. Another possible drawback is that the final publication has a decreased ‘surprise’ effect.”

But you would still recommend it to colleagues?
Sara: “We have experienced nothing but advantages, so yes, absolutely. If you are presenting results at conferences, competitors already know your work anyway. Publishing a preprint provides you with early feedback, which enables you to improve the final version of the paper.”

Publication
Aibar S et al., Nat Methods 2017

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“Think twice when it comes to patentable inventions”
Although the benefits of bioRxiv are clear, VIB’s head of IP Jan Demolder does make an important side note. “Scientists at VIB need to remain alert for potential inventions,” he argues. “Once a preprint is uploaded, it becomes novelty-destroying for any future patent application. When the traditional publication route is followed, we usually start the evaluation of a novel invention when the paper is submitted for review. The review process, about 9 months on average, gives us more than enough time to prepare a patent application. Using bioRxiv changes this timeline, so scientists with a patentable invention that want to make use of the
preprint publication route should contact our tech transfer team well before uploading the manuscript
to the preprint server.”
Further reading: Bourne et al. Ten simple rules to consider regarding preprint submission. PLOS 2017.

 

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Stein Aerts and Sara Aibar