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Group of biologists bypasses journals and uploads their work straight to the Internet

It's time.

FIONA MACDONALD
16 MAR 2016
 

Since the first scientific journal was created 351 years ago, the process for disseminating scientific information has remained fundamentally the same - results are written up, peer-reviewed, and eventually published. And while this process helps to ensure high-quality articles, it's also incredibly slow, with the average biology paper taking on average six months - and sometimes even years - to see the light of day.

Now a growing group of life scientists are working to change that, by committing the somewhat-rebellious act of uploading their papers directly to a open-access pre-print site, called bioRxiv, before submitting them to the mainstream journals, as Amy Harmon reports for The New York TimesThat means their work is now available for anyone to read and comment on for free.

 

Pre-print servers are something that physics and mathematics already user regularly - back in the '90s, arXiv.org (pronounced "archive", in case you were wondering) became the primary way to get research out there, allowing the scientific community to comment on it and contribute their ideas. Sort of like a Facebook thread for researchers. 

It's a system that still happens regularly today, and, if anything, it seems to supplement the traditional publishing model in those fields, with 80 percent of the manuscripts on arXiv.org later being submitted to mainstream journals, usually with beneficial updates and even new authors thanks to the feedback given during pre-print.

Similar pre-print servers do exist in the life sciences, but until now, they've rarely been used, because researchers have been nervous that it would hinder their career.

But with publishing delays continuing to increase for the major journals, scientists have decided it's time to put an end to the taboo, and have started uploading their research anyway, grouping behind the #ASAPbio hashtag.

Supporters of the model include Nobel Laureate in biology Carol Greider from Johns Hopkins University and neuroscientist Steve Shea from Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory:

 

The main reason scientists are so enthusiastic about pre-print seems to focus on two main reasons: firstly, it will make research freely available to the public - who fund the majority of research with our tax dollars - and secondly, it will help to increase the rate of scientific advance.

For example, on topics such as Zika virus where time is of the essence, pre-print servers could see scientists collaborating and learning from each other's discoveries within days. 

With the growing online support, a group of 70 prominent scientists met in Maryland last month to discuss whether pre-print is the way of the future.

But what about peer-review, I hear you ask? While the intention for most of the scientists behind ASAPbio is to eventually submit to mainstream journals and have their work reviewed, there are concerns that pre-print provides a platform for lower quality research and unverified claims. "Post-publication review of public-health research, what could possibly go wrong?" wrote Elsevier journal publisher, Andrew Miller, on Twitter. 

But bioRxiv would clearly indicate that its articles contain information that "has not yet been accepted or endorsed in any way by the scientific or medical community", and the ASAPbio movement has made it clear that most scientists wouldn't risk their reputation simply to rush a discovery out.

Also, the credibility argument only holds true if traditional publishing was perfect, which it isn't. Even with the lengthy peer-review process, mistakes still make it to print. Take for example the recent journal article that PLOS ONE had to retract because it credited the design of the human to "the Creator".

There's also ongoing controversy over the legitimacy of the review process, and the exorbinant paywalls that most journals keep their information behind.

One neuroscientist is so frustrated with the system that she's uploaded mllions of scientific papers for free - nearly every paper that's ever been published - in order to distribute knowledge, sort of like a Robin Hood of the science world.

That's a noble goal, but the outcome of the ASAPbio meeting was that researchers don't want to do away with journals altogether - they still need them to maintain quality and help determine the importance of research. They simply want to find a way for scientists to be able to get their work out to the public immediately. 

"The goal is to improve choice of communication, not to take choices away," the ASAPbio committee write on the site.

They're now working with journal publishers and editors, as well as funding bodies, to agree on best practice going forward. And there are still challenges to overcome. While many major journals accept mansucripts previously published online, the Cell publishing group doesn't. And pre-print articles aren't considered by funding and hiring committees, which means it will be harder for young scientist to find work on the back of a hit bioRxiv paper.

But one thing's clear: the people have spoken, and biology publishing is about to be forced into the digital age whether it likes it or not, and we'll be watching what happens closely. 

You can find out more about the pre-print process below:

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