Funders have been some of the biggest champions of making publication of research faster and more accessible. The latest push supports “preprinting” life sciences research ahead of journal publication.
There’s something of a steady, genteel revolt happening against the long traditions of research publication. As the Internet has reshaped the way we communicate, a growing movement of funders, government agencies, and even a lot of journals has been working to improve the publication process. They want to see science become more transparent, less prohibitively expensive to access, more collaborative and global, and much faster.
Funders, both public and private, are at the forefront of this fight, since they generally want the work they’ve paid for to be widely distributed, not stay locked away by a lumbering journal charging huge fees.
But finding the right model is the tricky part. The latest news regards the speed with which life sciences researchers share their findings. Some of the country’s biggest foundations—Sloan, Moore, Simons, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation—recently committed $400,000 to the cause of “preprinting” research.
Since research journals appeared about 350 years ago, the process has been more or less the same: Scientist submits manuscript, journal oversees peer review, journal publishes article. And often, it takes more than one try. Until a journal accepts an article, which can take months, a year, even years, life sciences findings in particular are generally kept under wraps.
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Preprinting means that scientists post their work on a public server at the same time or shortly after they submit it to a journal for review. A group of life scientists is now pushing to make this the default, under the name ASAPbio. The initiative started in 2015 and has held two international meetings. The recent grant will allow them to hire a full-time director to drive the effort.
Many say it’s a long time coming, and a recent New York Times article documented the rise of prestigious scientists, even Nobel winners, posting their work to the Internet and shouting it out loud and proud on social media.
As UC Berkeley’s Stephen Floor tweeted:
One need experience the liberating feeling of immediately communicating your results by preprint once to be hooked. #ASAPbio— Stephen Floor (@stephenfloor) February 17, 2016
Benefits include the obvious—other scientists can access fast-moving research immediately, not several months later, which could accelerate the iterative process of discovery—but it also more clearly establishes who came to a result first, and invites feedback from the entire research community, not just a journal’s selected peers.
It’s not a controversial an idea, as researchers in the physical sciences have been doing this extensively since the 1990s on the public server arXiv.org, a site that’s become routine reading for researchers.
But it’s not caught on in the life sciences. One reason is that some fear it will hurt their chances of being published in a prestigious journal. Biomedical findings can also carry public health implications, leading opponents of preprinting to worry that sharing before the extensive vetting of peer review could spread dangerous misinformation. Others fear it will encourage a rush to publication.
Preprinting defenders say a simple screening phase can weed out junk science, and that public discussion would provide the right context for readers, and actually create a superior vetting process on the way to publication.
One strong argument for preprinting involved the spread of the Zika virus, when a consortium of funders, institutions, and journals agreed to share research on the subject as rapidly and openly as possible. This raised the question, if it’s good for advancement of research, why limit the move to Zika?
This sort of thing is now a ripe opportunity for foundations, and just as in the open access battle, they can play a powerful role, with no obligation to (or fear of) publishers. For one, they can fund efforts to convince others to change, like ASAPbio; they can back sharing platforms like arxiv.org, or fund new publications like the open journal fronted entirely by philanthropy, eLife.
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As holders of the purse strings, they can also influence grantees, making specific requirements for openness and preprinting, and providing cover and assistance for those who want to be more open. Major foundations, for example, have been mandating that grantees publish in open access journals, and underwriting submission fees that often come with such publications.
The coalition acting in response to the Zika outbreak calls for funder signatories to take a lead role, and “require[s] researchers undertaking work relevant to public health emergencies to set in place mechanisms to share quality-assured interim and final data as rapidly and widely as possible…"
So while large publishers and the status quo are tough to shift, foundations are using their power to nudge forward more activity like preprinting. That could build up to a critical mass to redefine what's normal and reshape the overall way sharing of research findings works.