Vale 2015 Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

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Vale RD (2015) Accelerating scientific publication in biology. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 112:13439-46.

» PMID:26508643 Open Access

Vale RD (2015) Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Abstract: Scientific publications enable results and ideas to be transmitted throughout the scientific community. The number and type of journal publications also have become the primary criteria used in evaluating career advancement. Our analysis suggests that publication practices have changed considerably in the life sciences over the past 30 years. More experimental data are now required for publication, and the average time required for graduate students to publish their first paper has increased and is approaching the desirable duration of PhD training. Because publication is generally a requirement for career progression, schemes to reduce the time of graduate student and postdoctoral training may be difficult to implement without also considering new mechanisms for accelerating communication of their work. The increasing time to publication also delays potential catalytic effects that ensue when many scientists have access to new information. The time has come for life scientists, funding agencies, and publishers to discuss how to communicate new findings in a way that best serves the interests of the public and the scientific community.

Selected quotes

  • Physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists typically deposit their scientific manuscripts before journal publication in an open access e-print service called arXiv (pronounced “archive”), which was founded by Paul Ginsparg and is now operated by the Cornell Library.
  • Importantly, the public disclosure through arXiv is accepted by the physical science/ mathematics community as a priority for a discovery, and an arXiv posting is acceptable as a reference in a journal, book, or grant application. After the original paper is posted in arXiv, new versions can be uploaded: for example, after a paper has been revised through the journal review process or in response to other comments received by the community. However, earlier versions of the paper are retained, and the nature of the changes is indicated in revised uploads.
  • Currently, there are a few preprint servers specifically for biology, including bioRxiv.org (launched in 2013 by the nonprofit Cold Spring Harbor Press) as well as PeerJ and F1000Research, forprofit companies that also offer platforms for peer review. However, preprints in biology have not achieved a critical mass for takeoff.
  • The lack of peer review might invite lower quality or irreproducible data to be disseminated. Although a risk (SI Q&A Regarding Preprints), several factors mitigate such concerns.
    • First, arXiv and bioRxiv each have an initial screening mechanism that helps to eliminate overtly “unscientific” articles.
    • Second, the major factor for ensuring quality is that the reputation of the investigator is at stake, and achieving a good reputation within the community is a primary motivating factor for scientists. Indeed, a preprint submission is immediately visible to the entire community whereas a journal submission is seen confidentially by only a couple of referees. Thus, posting of a poor quality paper on a preprint server will be widely visible and reflect poorly on the investigator and his/her laboratory. Scientists take pride in their work and will be guided by their own internal standards in deciding when their work is ready to be released to the community.
    • Third, the paper can receive input (as this article has) from more than two or three referees, which could help authors correct flawed experiments/statements and help produce a better final product published in the journal.
    • Fourth, peer review by journals, although helpful, is certainly not a fool-proof mechanism for identifying problems or eliminating scientific irreproducibility, especially because the referees’ first task is to assess whether the work is “exciting enough” rather than “accurate enough.”
    • In addition, one could imagine an option of incorporating author-initiated peer evaluations as part of a preprint, which most scientists do informally before submitting their work to a journal.
    • Supporting information - SI Q&A Regarding Preprints: We already have a looming problem of irreproducibility. Preprints will just encourage more irreproducible results to be spread throughout the community. - This issue is indeed important, because preprints open up the possibility of wide-spread science communication before peer review. Preprints might allow work to be disseminated beforemistakes are caught by peer review and thus could lead researchers down wrong tracks. On the other hand, many peer-reviewed articles have proven to be inaccurate, and there is little data on the success rate of peer review in filtering out irreproducible, inaccurate or fraudulent data. Itmight be better to have many people see the work right away, allowing the possibility of inadvertent mistakes to be caught and helping peer reviewers and the authors themselves to produce a more accurate final product. Furthermore, a high profile result will likely be replicated right away and thus validated before it is published in a high profile journal. A good commenting system on preprints might help this process.
    • Supporting information - SI Q&A Regarding Preprints: Someone posts a preprint with a quick and dirty experiment to make a claim. I worked much harder to establish proof with a more complete and convincing set of evidence. I am now forced to post my preprint a month later. Won’t journals be reluctant to publish my paper because they will have seen the earlier posted work? - Quite the oppositemay occur. Currently, journals want to publish stories first, but some of this drive may diminish if work routinely appears first as preprints. Journals then may be incentivized to look more toward quality than speed and seek to publish the definitive work that will stand the test of time and become the publication that is most cited. Also, the issue of speed versus quality of research already exists in the present journal system. For example, a researcher can quickly publish a study with minimal data in a lower journal; this publication can potentially color another journal’s view of a more extensive manuscript being submitted later. Furthermore, if a scientist repeatedly has a pattern of reporting quick and dirty experiments to beat competitors rather than doing complete and thoughtful work, then this behavior will tarnish his/her reputation and will not be a path to long-term success. In addition, there is “version control” with preprints; if someone rushes out an incomplete paper and then subsequently wants to correct mistakes, they can upload a new version, but the original version remains on the site for all to see.


See also