Summer SciComm: Preprints


As a scientist, perhaps the most important part of your research is communicating the results of the work. Yes, those control experiments are important – but without letting other scientists know the results, your work won’t have any impact!

There are lots of ways scientists communicate with each other: from formal mechanisms like publishing a research article, presenting a conference poster or talk, or submitting patent or grant applications; to informal settings like lab meetings, Twitter, coffee chats with potential collaborators, blogging and more. These each have different goals, formats, and processes, and they provide different amounts of access or feedback. One of the most significant shifts in scientific communication is the rising use of preprints, or scientific manuscripts shared by the authors on a public server independent from peer-reviewed publishing in a journal. 

Accelerating Scientific Communication

Preprints have been common in fields like math and physics for decades (see: arXiv.org), but have been only adopted by biological and biomedical scientists (see: bioRxiv.org or medRxiv.org) in the past few years.

 

800px-CERN_Accelerating_Science_2010-07-01-min
Fig. 1: Stand aside, CERN – it’s a new age of accelerating science! Photo courtesy of under a CC license.

Many scientists and advocates have argued that while peer review is valuable, modern scientific publishing has a number of drawbacks, especially the increasingly growing time from submission to publication. It takes many months, often more than a year, to receive a full acceptance or rejection at a single journal – not to mention the possibly repeated rounds of rejection and resubmission to other journals. Preprints allow authors to avoid many of these issues, by sharing their work publicly and immediately once the manuscript is drafted. Preprints were one of the key routes for researchers to share information about the emerging SARS-CoV-2 virus quickly and openly. By sharing results faster and more broadly, scientists can receive recognition for their efforts, inspire future research, and increase their impact.

Open Access and Transparency

Another major benefit of preprints is their openness. Preprints can be read freely by anyone and are typically free of charge for authors to post. They can be assessed and commented on by readers, typically peers in the field, and updated by the authors over time, providing a public record of changes, critiques or endorsements. In contrast, journal-based peer review is usually a confidential process among a few individuals. 

Early-career researchers especially enjoy the ability to post a preprint as evidence of their productivity that can be shared with hiring and review committees, as opposed to the opaque (and, admittedly, somewhat meaningless) practice of listing “Submitted” articles in their CV or grant applications. A number of organizations (such as ASAPbio) advocate for preprints, and a growing number of funding bodies and review committees encourage and consider preprints as demonstration of productivity. 

Part of an Open Scientific Communication Ecosystem

Of course, preprints don’t replace journals and other modes of scientific communication. Researchers often post a preprint at the same time as, or slightly before, submitting the manuscript to a journal for formal peer review. Some organizations, including some journals, also support open peer review or curation models where editors’ comments, reviewers’ comments, and author responses can be shared directly alongside the preprint while the work is still in progress or awaiting a final publication in a journal. 

Preprints can be one tool in a combination of strategies for your scientific communication needs. Going to present some unpublished results at a conference? Post your working manuscript as a preprint too and you can share all the details that you couldn’t fit on your poster, or invite attendees to read and comment online! Want the general public (say, policymakers or community organizations) to use your work but don’t think they’ll have subscriptions to the specialized journals in your field? Post a preprint before you submit to a journal and share it more widely! 

Not everyone embraces preprints as part of their scientific communication needs. The most often-cited reasons researchers might not post a preprint are reluctance to share their work too openly too soon or simply a lack of awareness of the benefits of preprints. Some worry about faulty work being posted as preprints, assuming that peer review is the only way to rigorously determine or ensure a manuscript’s quality. But even journal-based peer review itself can be prone to biases or errors, with a lack of transparency in most review processes. Preprints and their feedback, in contrast, are immediately and openly accessible, allowing problematic work to be quickly identified and rigorously discussed and addressed by the scientific community. Most preprints are eventually published in journals after formal peer review, with the earlier attention and feedback giving authors the opportunity to strengthen the manuscript prior to submission.

Preprints at Addgene

Preprints are all about sharing scientific knowledge faster and more openly – which is also our mission here at Addgene! Along with other open-science organizations, we support scientists in sharing their results and materials with the broader community, and preprints are a great way to do that.

We are happy to receive deposits of plasmids that have been described in a preprint. In fact, over 1,500 plasmids in our catalog either list a bioRxiv preprint as the source or were deposited when the now-published article was a preprint. Depositing plasmids that were used in a preprint provides all the same benefits as sharing those plasmids alongside a journal article, but it makes the research materials available to the community significantly sooner. Plus, authors can include the Addgene ID for their deposited plasmids in the final journal publication or an updated preprint, further increasing their findability.

Now, go out there and finish that experiment (and don’t forget the controls!). And when you’re ready to write up the paper and share your results, share them as best you can!

Mike Lacy is also employed by the American Society for Cell Biology in a position working with preprints in life sciences and posted two preprints of his own research during his PhD studies. 


References and Additional Resources

References

ASAPbio, Preprint Resource Center: https://asapbio.org/preprint-info

ASAPbio, Preprints and Rapid Communication of COVID-19 research: https://asapbio.org/preprints-and-covid-19

Ettinger CL, Sadanandappa MK, Görgülü K, Coghlan KL, Hallenbeck KK, Puebla I (2022) A guide to preprinting for early-career researchers. Biol Open. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.059310

Fraser N, Mayr P, Peters I (2021) Motivations, concerns and selection biases when posting preprints: a survey of bioRxiv authors. bioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.09.07.459259

Sarabipour S, Debat HJ, Emmott E, Burgess SJ, Schwessinger B, Hensel Z (2019) On the value of preprints: An early career researcher perspective. PLoS Biol. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000151

Sever R, Roeder T, Hindle S, Sussman L, Black K-J, Argentine J, Manos W, Inglis JR (2019) bioRxiv: the preprint server for biology. bioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/833400 

Stern BM, O’Shea EK (2019) A proposal for the future of scientific publishing in the life sciences. PLoS Biol. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000116

More resources on the Addgene blog

Summer SciComm Series: Modes of Communication

Intro to Our Summer SciComm Series!





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