Preprints and academic journals

The incidental journalist

By Albert Cardona, May 10th, 2016.

I consider the biorXiv and similar pre-peer review publication initiatives as absolutely necessary to help tilt the balance between editor and authors back to the authors. Over the last years, prominent journals have gathered enormous power, with decisions over who is hired for faculty, or which lab is granted research funds, dependent on whether a manuscript is accepted or not in one such journal. By publishing in the biorXiv, manuscripts are first seen not just by an editor and 2 or 3 reviewers, but by the larger research community, which is then not only informed about the work without having to wait a year or more, but also has the opportunity to provide feedback to the authors. Editors are then reactive to the community feedback and can approach the authors to solicit specific manuscripts for peer-review and publication in their own journals. The published pre-print also serves as a great vehicle for e.g. preliminary findings towards soliciting a grant or applying for a faculty job, and, once revised, as the means to bypass restrictions on accessing manuscripts in journals that sadly do not practice open access policies.

With pre-prints, the research community self-selects: those academics willing to review a manuscript, because they find it interesting and relevant to them, can do so. Journal editors are not needed at this stage, but they are needed later: to request reviews from colleagues in the field that might see the research findings from a different angle, and who may not have necessarily chosen to elect to review the manuscript publicly, particularly if they held any concerns over the data acquisition or the conclusions. Scientists are only human and fear of retaliation is not unfounded, particularly in considering that faculty appointments, grants, awards and publications all depend on the opinions of one's colleagues.

But secrecy in peer-review is a double-edged sword and can lead to lack of accountability. Here is where the eLife reviewing approach shines: by employing practicing scientists as reviewing editors, and by revealing the names of the reviewers to each other and enforcing a moderated discussion, the reviewers' comments are kept within constructive territory, with reviewers still retaining sufficient privacy to disclose any concerns that might be raised. The discussion that takes place among reviewers and reviewing editor is essential towards eliminating unnecessary requests for further experiments and towards providing a unified, useful commentary back to the authors. eLife's approach to manuscript revisions avoids unnecessary delays and ornery commentary from the part of the reviewers, while retaining all the good qualities of peer review such as constructive criticism and the ability to detect serious concerns with the results.

Jointly, pre-prints and eLife's approach to peer review result in a deeper assessment of research findings, while simultaneously ensuring accessibility to the findings for the broader public and without delaying scientific communication of research findings. Everybody saves time, accelerating the pace of research. And a scientist that doesn't have to spend time doing pointless tasks (bypassing barriers to access a paper, or performing batteries of redundant, unnecessary control experiments, or touching up graphics in figures pointlessly only to please a specific reviewer) is a happy scientist, more likely to keep a positive and constructive attitude at all times, further improving the research environment.

Now if only all academic journals that don't yet release their accepted papers with a CC-BY license, and that don't yet apply a moderated, consensuated approach to peer review, would do so. I expect that those that don't will become niche and eventually disappear. Bigger empires have fallen in surprisingly little time.

Notes

  1. The EMBO Journal has applied a similar approach to peer-review well before eLife existed.
  2. Funders say that preprints let grant reviewers see reactions from the community and how the principal investigators react to these: Preprints for the life sciences, 2016
  3. Leslie Vosshall's The glacial pace of scientific publishing: why it hurts everyone and what we can do to fix it.
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