Five Reasons Biologists Should Use Preprint Servers

So, following my previous post, I got some interesting feedback from a couple of biologists who were not completely sold on the idea of posting preprints of your work to the arXiv (or, now, the bioRxiv). Or, rather, they were not convinced that the cost-benefit calculus worked out in favor of posting. After all, as one person pointed out, there are already a bunch of hoops to jump through on the way to publication, what with formatting, revising, angrily cursing reviewer number 2, reformatting, resubmitting, and whatnot. What does posting to a preprint server do for you, beyond adding another step?

Well, it occurs to me that this is probably a question shared by a lot of biologists out there, so I thought I would share the reasons I’ve come up with.

  1. Open Access. You want your work to be available to the widest possible audience, right? When some enthusiastic young researcher is searching the literature, and they stumble across your seminal work on tribble parthenogenesis, you don’t want them getting Spock-blocked by some crappy paywall. Sure, maybe their University has an overpriced subscription to the obscure journal you published in, but maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s a pain for them to access it via the proxy server when they’re off campus. Or maybe this young researcher doesn’t have access because he and/or she is an independent scholar, because they’re actually too smart and creative to work for The Man. Maybe they’ll just scroll down the search results page until they find another paper by your grad-school nemesis — the one who never chipped in his fair share for pizza — and you’ve lost another citation. Don’t let this happen to you! Make sure that your work is freely, and easily, accessible to everyone everywhere.
  2. Speed. You’ve finished your research, you’ve blindly written down the p-value that the software you downloaded from the internet spit out — er, I mean, “double-checked the statistics”, and you’ve written a beautiful discussion section that skillfully implies that your results are going to revolutionize not only your own field, but any field whose scientists have sufficient foresight to follow in your footsteps. But now you have to wait for six months or a year, or maybe longer, before your paper appears in print, and, of course, by that time, even you will have moved on to more interesting problems. If you post to a preprint server, though, your work is available immediately. And, if you make revisions in response to reviewer comments, you can post the revised version there, too. Some journals (e.g., Evolution) will even let you post the final, published, journal-formatted PDF to the preprint server after some time (12 months following publication for Evolution). So, the fact that you’re getting your work out there early does not mean that you’re committing to something less than the final version.
  3. Normalization. At this point, most biology journals are okay with authors posting their manuscripts to preprint servers, but some still are not. Not to name names (*cough* Elsevier *cough*), but some publishers would still like to hold on to an outdated publishing model where they can earn obscene profits through ownership of a product to which they contribute little to no value. The more biologists publish preprints — and commit to publishing only in journals that permit prepublication — the more pressure it places on publishers to stop rent-seeking. Basically, it is a really easy way to nudge the world of academic publishing in the direction of justice. Or, you know, if you prefer, you can keep feeding those paywall parasites like the rest of your Vichy scientist colleagues. No judgment here.
  4. Feedback. When you’re desperately worried about getting out publications so that you can get your degree, or get tenure, or whatever, it is easy to forget the real purpose of peer review. In an ideal world, peer review means that experts in your field look closely at your work and help you to make it better. By posting a preprint, you are able to get comments from the entire community — at an early enough stage that those comments might actually help you to improve the paper before it fossilizes.
  5. The Left Side of History. Look, the fact is, this is the direction that everything is moving. And you need to ask yourself, years from now, do you want to be the stodgy, old, out-of-touch professor who doesn’t post preprints, and who has to get their grad students to help set their powerpoint presentation to full-screen mode? Or do you want to be the super-cool hipster prof, who could say things like, “I’ve been posting on bioRxiv since you were in diapers”, but who would never actually say that, because it would make you sound like a total dickhead? At future Thanksgiving dinners, do you want to be your field’s Liz Cheney, or its Mary Cheney?*

* Answer: You want to be your field’s Lon Chaney.

Enter the bioRxiv

So, if you are a Physicist, or if you know a Physicist and are very patient, you’ve heard all about the arXiv, the preprint server that kicked off the open-access publication movement. If not, here’s what you need to know. The idea is that when you write up a paper, you post it online, where it becomes immediately and freely available to the world. If you revise, you can post the revised paper. And, even if you go on to publish the work traditionally, there will be a version out there that is not behind some journal’s paywall.

Most arXiv users do, in fact, go on to publish their work in traditional, peer-reviewed journals. But by posting to the arXiv first, you get your work out quickly. If you’re a naive idealist, this lubricates the flow and speeds the creation of knowledge. If you’re a paranoid careerist, it allows you to date-stamp your ideas to guard against being scooped.

While the arXiv has a “Quantitative Biology” section, preprint culture has never really taken hold in the Biology community the way it has in Physics. But here’s something that will maybe help to push things in the right direction: bioRxiv, Biology’s very own preprint server! The server features twenty-four sub-fields of Biology, and, as of this writing, Evolutionary Biology is WINNING with eight posted manuscripts.

If you’re worried about whether posting a preprint of your manuscript might interfere with your ability to publish in a traditional journal:

  1. Grow a pair of non-gender-specific gonads!
  2. Look into the pre-publication policies of various publishers here. (And, if you’re planning to publish somewhere that prohibits preprints, rethink your priorities, you collaborator!)

Now get to posting!