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Making the case for preprint publishing in biology

This week, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press launched bioRxiv, a preprint server for the biological sciences. This is very exciting for those of us who have moved into biology from physics (as well as other quantitative disciplines, such as mathematics and computer science). Scholarly publishing in physics has changed dramatically as a consequence of a service introduced by Paul Ginsparg at Cornell in 1991 that users call the arXiv. Many of us are hoping that bioRxiv will motivate similar changes in biology.

What is a “preprint server” and why are people like me so excited about it?  The original arXiv is a website where researchers can post manuscripts for free and without any peer review. Physicists typically post newly written papers directly to the arXiv even before submitting to a journal. The authors benefit from being able to immediately claim priority on their discoveries. The physics community as a whole benefits by being able to read new research without the lengthy delay often caused by the peer review process. And a much larger community of interdisciplinary scholars across the globe benefits from having free access to everything that is posted.

One might worry about the effect such a preprint server would have on the peer-review process. But in the physics community, the arXiv is widely believed to have strengthened the peer-review process. When physicists read an article that makes questionable claims, or is hard to understand, they often just email the authors and (politely) say so. And after the authors have received feedback, either from such emails or from the formal review process at some journal, they will post a revised manuscript.

What about the bad research or pseudoscience that remains on the arXiv? Frankly, people just ignore it. For instance, every weekday morning I get an email from the arXiv listing the abstracts of all the papers that were posted to the q-bio (quantitative biology) section the previous day. Most are not of any interest to me, and not infrequently I see a manuscript that is obviously pseudoscience, but so what? It doesn’t take that long to read the email, and whenever I do see something that might be interesting—either from some author whose research I like, or on a topic I’m interested in—I add it to my reading list.

There has been a lot of hand wringing lately about how to improve scholarly publishing in the biological sciences—how to improve the quality of papers, how to prevent lengthy delays in publishing, how to avoid the unnecessary experiments often asked by reviewers, how to reduce delays in the publication process, how to guarantee free access to research that, after all, was likely paid for by taxpayer dollars. I would argue that physics has already solved this problem: freely accessible preprint servers. This is why I believe the bioRxiv is such an exciting development.

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