On prepub servers and DORA, a glimpse of a future that is upon us

The current publication peer review system is heading for a terminal phase.

Submission to a preprint server is essential for the job market as it provides visibility to your work. And if the funding body considering the application tells you that this does not count, check whether they have signed DORA and if they have, tell them to unsign.

The reasonings of those who refuse papers in servers recognize that a paper in a server is, indeed, a publication.

As the work prevails over the publication, the scientist over the publisher, we shall regain our ground.

Last week an article in Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60) created a huge amount of e-steam and in the resulting fog a few things got, not surprisingly, confused. In particular the relationship between Open Access and Peer Review; they are related but not in the manner that was implied by the article and suggested by some of the comments. The article was a shoddy piece of scientific journalism, more fitting to the UK’s Sun or Daily Mail than to Science Magazine, and it joins the editorial of G. North in Current Biology (http://bit.ly/1a2D59c) as examples that something is afoot with the science publishing system as it is –and some of this very centered in the biosciences. The article in question did not tell us anything that we did not know and hid much that we know (some of it exposed in M Eisen’s piece: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439). Much indeed was said in the cloud of comments generated by the article, so I shall not expand but one thing was clear: the current publication peer review system is heading for a terminal phase. It is some observations about the emerging future that I would like to raise here.

The main reason why the system is becoming terminal is a well known principle in physics and engineering: if the volume of water that flows through a pipe is bigger than what the pipe can contain, eventually it will burst the pipe. As the volume of scientific publications increases the current vehicles for its publication cannot cope with it and this is why the number of publications has increased. I should point out that the combination of what Biology is about –lots of stuff and information- and the relatively easy availability of powerful technology to deal with it, the quality of  most of the work is medium to high and journals, if they want to reject more than 80% of the papers, have a very hard time deciding what should and should not be in the 20% they want. This of course creates an opportunity for new publishers and publications. Couple to this OA and you get the brew for the emerging situation. Of course the big publishers have seen the golden goose here and they have created their own OA journals to absorb many of these publications and make even more money i.e. as Lampedusa put it “everything changes for everything to remain the same” or to put it plainly, they (the ‘big’ journals) have got us by…..the throat. And indeed, the system –our addiction to Nature Cell and Science and the ever more baroque and unsatisfactory system of peer review- holds, just holds, because a certain population of scientist sticks to it and because the institutions have, unconsciously, allied themselves with them. This population is the one that grew up as scientists in the 70s and the 80s and, interestingly, is made up of Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biologists. Genome and Systems Biologists do not suffer these hangups, or not so obviously.

Will the situation change? The answer of course is YES -no clairvoyance here, situations always change. The real question is what will it change to? Will it evolve a more rational system, attuned with the times? How can we get to this without losing the most important attributes of Science? Can we do it fast? Let me remind you that the people that suffer most in the current situation is the young generation and those who, while doing good science, are not in the power lobbies that control publication and grants. The question is: how can we make Science flat without losing quality and keeping many of the attributes that control this? Of course, if there is something that has made the world flat it is the Internet.

Enter the preprint server……. and combine it with SFDORA (http://am.ascb.org/dora/)

Yes, like you I have heard of preprint servers before and, like some of you, I had taken it as a distant rumble of something to be ignored. After all….well, you know all that can be said about them and…….. who reads papers there when we have our revered and valued Journals? Sure physicists use them but biologists?……..however the rumble, if it has a cause, can become a thunder as the source gets closer and at some point, one can gauge that there is a physical force behind it. I suspect the preprint server is like this and its time is coming. In certain contexts it has the potential to be the big game changer since OA, particularly when (not if, as I think that it will happen) we take it seriously. It is interesting that many publishers now will accept papers for review which have been posted in these servers as it is equally interesting to see the publishers which do not agree to this (bit.ly/PsnQjw ). As the reasonings of those who refuse papers in servers recognize, a paper in a server is, indeed, a publication. However a server is not a substitute for a publisher, it fulfills a different function, it is complementary. In many ways it puts everyone in their own place: scientists can make their work available to each other on a truly open basis and Journals can do their own business which is ….well, I am increasingly not sure what it is but what they do is to channel some Science, much of it good, within certain contexts. Properly curated preprint servers under the umbrella of San Francisco DORA (with its emphasis on the quality of the work rather than on the publisher as proxy for such evaluation) can provide an alternative to this and offer an opportunity for the scientists, biomedical scientists in particular, to recover control over what we do. This aside, let me give you two practical example of why we should embrace this combination.

A common complain when people apply for fellowships is that many funders will not look at an application if there is no first author publication. They will not specify the impact they might want to see (not these days) but they will simply say that without a publication there is no fellowship. Now it is likely that the reason why you applied is because you had submitted a good paper to one of those 10-15 journals we deem to be in some top tier of quality and hoped that by the time the application was considered you could write and say, hey here it is, published. But as your work falls through the publications gradient trying to find a place, you still do not have the publication. If you had submitted your preprint to ArXiv or BioRxve it would be, effectively, published (this is why Cell Press will not accept this), the committee can look at it –if they want to- and, according to DORA, it should be able to evaluate you on the basis of your work. Thus, submission to a preprint server is essential for the job market as it provides visibility to your work. And if the funding body considering the application tells you that this does not count, check whether they have signed DORA and if they have, tell them to unsign. DORA should be one of the main reasons why we should begin to use preprint servers. I insist, these are not a substitute for Journal publications but, if we use them correctly, they will put everybody in their place. Furthermore, in the long term I wonder whether the BioSciences might finally grow up and start being less dependent on Journals to evaluate their own work which then might become magazines highlighting work that they deem fashionable or interesting, commenting on it but not being the main vehicle for its dissemination. After all has this not happen with the music industry? Is it not happening with Newspapers and books?

I can also see the value of these servers when writing grant applications. Same logic, many funders do not like you to quote papers in preparation or submitted and yet you do need to get the information across. Simple, get your work in one of the preprint servers and quote it. It will count. Reviewers will be able to look at the data and judge it.

Let me repeat, we should not get rid of Journals, it is simply that the times are making their ways unhelpful and the sooner we force change, the better for everybody. If you stop and think about it, this is a no brainer and I suspect that if we do things right, we shall change publishing for the second time (the first time being the advent of OA). If we begin to use preprint servers it might be that journals will have to go there to look for work. It is not difficult to imagine an e-Bay of Science in which we auction our work to the journals instead of what happens now. As the work prevails over the publication, the scientist over the publisher, we shall regain the ground. It all could also make publishing cheaper….surely.

So, next time you are about to submit a paper, think about how you do it. If you are a student or a postdoc, see the enormous advantages to send it to a server at the same time that you submit to a journal. If you are a PI, do not hide your interest in an NCS publication behind the career or the student or the postdoc for if you really care about these, you should submit to a server first and if the journal you were thinking about does not allow this, ditch that journal. Everybody can gain.

So, the answer to the question of who in the biological sciences reads papers in prepublication servers when we have our revered and valued Journals is that all will depend on how interesting the papers are. For the moment this is going to be a minority but, as we wean ourselves off the intellectually nurturless high impact factor journals, as we recognize that science is about content and not about covers, as we put cool in its place (the fridge) and go for rigour and interest, more and more people will find the best of these servers useful; particularly if we work together to make them our place of exchange of ideas and discussion. More importantly, looking into the future I have little doubt that the younger generations will prefer this to the old, clutchy, clunky, clicky system that we have in Journals at the moment.