My take on preprints

I am sure you’ve heard the buzz about preprints in biology. Preprints have been a thing for a long time now in physics and math. The idea is that you submit your paper in a more or less finished form to a server called arXiv (pronounced archive), where their manuscript only undergoes very cursory approval but no formal peer review. It is then available for anyone to read and comment on. Biology took much longer to accept preprints, but the movement has been gaining momentum in recent years. There is a biological arXiv twin called biorXiv, and it has become very popular, especially among computational biologists.There are many advantages of preprints. First, you get to get your story out quicker and people can find out about it sooner. Second, it establishes priority of sorts – if you have a hot finding and are worried about getting scooped, you can show that you were first by posting a preprint. Third, it enables your peers to comment on the work and help you polish your paper before submitting to a journal. Obviously, there are drawbacks as well. For one, some journals do not accept papers that had been previously posted as preprints, so you limit the scope of where you can submit. Also, the flip-side of the priority conundrum is that in many places, a preprint are not considered as a publication, so someone that has a similar project in the works may rush their stuff through review and scoop you in a peer-reviewed journal.

The big question nowadays is whether preprints should be accepted as citable items on grant applications. I am not really convinced either way. On the one hand, it really helps the early career investigators demonstrate productivity, which may help them get the grants they need to get off the ground before the big papers start rolling in. On the other hand, I am sure it will be used by applicants to subvert page limits on grants. Instead of presenting a whole lot of preliminary data, which may not fit into the grant, they will put it up as a preprint and simply cite it. Secondly, if preprints are cited as proof or productivity, the reviewer will have to read the preprint in much detail to gauge the quality and novelty of the work. With published studies this had already been done by the editor and journal reviewers, so the grant reviewer can focus more on the proposal at hand. So basically allowing the citation of preprints on grant applications will increase reviewer burden, while making things a bit easier for early career folks. I don’t have enough experience with grant review to tell whether this is a worthwhile tradeoff.

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