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No more peer pressure: Biologists can publish directly online

Asad Ali | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:59 IST

The event

  • ASAPbio is the new ongoing movement to embrace preprints more instead of peer reviewing papers for ages
  • ASAPbio conference saw quite a few research scientists endorse preprint platforms like bioRxiv, which are open-access and free

Why it\'s important

  • Publications which accept preprints are able to publish papers faster so there\'s instant dissemination of important knowledge
  • Peer reviews are important but it has to accommodate a more efficient system to benefit the science community at large

More in the story

  • How is preprint different from traditional peer review systems?
  • Pros and cons of the peer review process

There's a seven-second GIF doing the rounds on Twitter -- a bug lying helplessly on its back, rotating what seems to be a piece of paper or styrofoam over and over again. That, says neuroscientist Jonathan Michaels, is exactly how biologists feel when they're trying to publish a paper.

The bug may take a while to get on track, but researchers now have an alternative to publish their work, which is faster and less cost-intensive. In fact it's free.

It's called bioRxiv -- an open-access pre-print site where convention-crushing life scientists can upload their papers directly for anyone to read and critique.

But what about peer reviews, did you ask? No peer pressure here, and hence none of the endless waits for your paper to see the light of day.

But first, what's a preprint?

It is the final manuscript of any research paper that gets sent to major journals for reviewing by seniors from the community. Except, a preprint doesn't require the traditional vetting from community seniors, which is what peer review is. Here's a video that sums it up well:

Preprints aren't new to science. It is common enough in the field of physics and mathematics - ArXiv preprint server was developed for both subject areas way back in 1991. There's a keynote address in fact by ArXiv founder Paul Ginsparg about its history which you can check out here. But unfortunately, the biology community didn't evolve at the same pace as others.

Better late than never though. The bioRxiv site has seen a large number of uploads already - 2,048 papers were featured on the three-year-old bioRxiv over the last year itself. And it's gaining more and more traction with time. Two major developments have contributed to the sudden spike in open access preprint interest.

Read: Russian researcher gives free access to 48 million academic papers

The first is the ASAPbio movement. Originally developed as a platform for the biology community to come together on discussions about preprints and its role in facilitating life sciences research, ASAPbio has now become a hashtag and a rallying cry for those in favour of preprints. In fact, in February this year, disgruntled researchers from the life sciences stream came together at a meeting labelled 'ASAPbio' to discuss pros and cons of preprints and the best way ahead for the movement.

The second major development was when Carol Greider - a Nobel Prize laureate from John Hopkins University uploaded a report of her recent discoveries on bioRxiv before sending it to a 'proper' journal for publication. This is what she tweeted out:

Quite a few from the biology community have been vocal in their support of preprints and ASAPbio. Here's Stephen Floor, Postdoctoral Fellow from Berkeley:

And here's Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize recipient and former director of National Institutes of Health giving his opinion at the ASAPbio conference:

The pros and cons

It's easy to understand the lure of directly publishing a paper without waiting for six months for a peer review to take place. There's the obvious angle of immediacy. No queues to getting your work out there on social media instantly for people to assimilate your ideas.

It's particularly beneficial if there's an important work waiting to be published on, say cancer, or in current times the cure for Zika. It can only be of use to the community and the rest of the world if such research gets disseminated quickly. In fact Stephen Curry reported for the Guardian how the scientific community was asked to share data and results related to the Zika crisis "as rapidly and openly as possible." The article talks about the problems of publishing delays plaguing the life sciences community.

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But there are critics of preprints as well. Notable among them is US biologist Randy Schekman who, in 2013,declared a boycott on publications like Nature and Science. Both the publications support preprints. Schekman said that often an article's 'Impact Factor' is assessed by the number of times it is cited, and if the work appears in "luxury" publications like Nature and Science, it doesn't necessarily make it better. Guardian quotes him as saying: "A paper can become highly cited because it is good science - or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong."

However, his alleged "hypocrisy" is called out in this article which argues that Schekman's had about 46 such papers featured in the very same publications, including one in Science published in 2013.

Which brings us to the question of authenticity of work and how - in a mad scramble to publish it first and fast without any peer reviews - a paper can suffer major inaccuracies. Those who swear by the litmus test of peer reviews may need to hide for this one, because there are numerous instances ranging from hilarious to I-can't-believe-it's-true, where peer reviews have been faked, especially by predatory publishers, who let through random works of satire/downright mockery without really going through content seriously, let alone vet it properly.

The most popular of such fake peer review cases has to be the 2014 fictional paper by two Simpsons characters - Maggie Simpson & Edna Krabappel, and Kim Jong Fun. It was titled "Fuzzy Homogeneous Configurations" and was created using a random text generator. It was also accepted by two scientific journals - Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems, and the Aperito Journal of NanoScience Technology. The paper was actually created by Alex Smolyanitsky to expose the standards of certain science journals.

An even better paper was in store for academic circles in 2014. Titled "Get me off your f*cking mailing list", this one was accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. The paper comprised just these 7 words repeated throughout, in the form of text and flowcharts. What began as a joke by two US computer scientists became a full fledged paper submitted by an an Australian scientist named Peter Vamplew to the journal to call out on their nonexistent peer review procedures.

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Even on a more serious note, outside the realm of predatory publishing, peer reviews can fail. Some years back two science papers (published in Nature in January 2014) were retracted because they were soon found to have numerous errors. The papers on stem cells were done by the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan. As far back as 1998, a study linking measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, published in Lancet, was proved wrong and sensational.

So is it time to bid adieu to the peer review system and embrace the preprint in all its free-and-fair glory? Not really, say researchers. It's imperative that the community finds the sweet spot between preprints and the tradition of peer reviews for a healthy work of research. New York Times quotes James Fraser, assistant professor at the University of California: "It's not beer or tacos. it's beer AND tacos."

And that quite sums up the dilemma.

Edited by Lamat R Hasan

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First published: 19 March 2016, 8:11 IST
Asad Ali @asadali1989

Asad Ali is another cattle class journalist trying to cover Current affairs and Culture when he isn't busy not saving the world.