Increasingly though, the go-to server is one called (pronounced bio-archive). In April, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative agreed to a multi-year funding package—terms of which have not been disclosed—to solidify the future of bioRxiv. The money and engineering resources will also be used to bulk up the server’s automated tools for text mining, to make the repository’s content more accessible to researchers and easier to analyze with a machine. In addition to providing a digital home for preprints, scientists can also submit their work directly from bioRxiv to more than 100 peer-reviewed journals with just a few clicks.
Richard Sever, a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, co-founded bioRxiv in 2013. When it first started, scientists submitted about 50 papers each month. Most of them were genomics researchers and bioinformaticians—people who used to be physicists. They had switched professions only to find no preprint server, or culture of sharing, to match their previous experience. They were the earliest adopters of Sever’s new repository.
like most scientists trying out the preprint scheme, didn’t totally abandon the traditional scientific publication track. His human exome reference library was eventually , and would go on to be cited more than 800 times. But because he posted both the dataset and the preprint explaining it more than nine months before the peer-reviewed version came out, other scientists didn’t have to wait to start using his data. Between October 2015 and August 2016, scientists viewed his newly compiled exome data 3 million times and downloaded the preprint more than 18,000 times. Together, they helped researchers launch new investigations into the genetic factors underlying diseases like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
This, then, is the two-fold promise of preprints: Scientists get to demonstrate their scholarly contributions to potential funders while their manuscripts are being peer-reviewed for publication. And at the same time, the scientific community gets to see that work months or even years before they would otherwise. Just how quickly could preprints speed up scientific discovery? According to Stanford bioengineer Stephen Quake, if one preprint inspired the work of just two other people, biologists would see a five-fold acceleration in scientific progress within a decade.
Preprints could solve these issues by decoupling distribution of results from their certification via peer review. But publishers and some scientists worry preprints will only further dilute the research literature and endanger fields already struggling with . And since preprints also threaten to dilute revenues at academic publishing houses, there’s more than just scientific integrity at stake.
In Valleyspeak, Cell is attempting to disrupt its disruptor. As many scientists have pointed out, it looks like the for-profit company is making moves to undercut a nonprofit model for open information sharing. There’s no real money in preprint servers—Nature Publishing Group tried it a decade ago (before it was Springer Nature)—and shuttered the service after five years. All the other repositories out there are sustained by some combination of grants, donations, and support from academic institutions. But if every name brand journal started hosting their own “sneak peek,” it would further fracture efforts to get all biological preprints in one place with one set of rules.
Within a few years, other titles like Nature and Science followed suit, jumping to the top of the newly established ranking system known as the “impact factor.” It does things like measure how many citations a paper gets and in what kinds of journals those citations appear. Now commonly accepted as the currency of scientific prestige, researchers who publish in “high-impact” journals are more likely to get job offers, grant money, and attention from the mainstream media.
But perhaps no publisher better encapsulates the upheaval than Cell Press. Which is appropriate, given that its namesake journal was the first to propagate the idea that where you published mattered more than what you published. In 1974, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched Cell to showcase the newly emerging field of molecular biology. At that time, the norm was for scientists to submit to the journal that matched its subject matter best, and for editors to publish any research that could pass peer-review. But Cell’s first editor, a young biologist named Ben Lewin, treated his new journal like an exclusive club, rejecting far more papers than he published. He basically invented prestige publishing.
Some of those publications make no attempt to hide their disdain for preprints. Which forces scientists to choose between sharing their work openly and keeping it offline to give it a shot at a classy publication. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences won’t take papers that appear as preprints if they have a Creative Commons License, which about 70 percent of bioRxiv papers do. On the other end of the spectrum, the open access journal PLoS Genetics actually sends its editors to scour bioRxiv and other preprint servers to look for papers to publish.
You may be wondering why scientists would even bother to publish in journals after they’ve posted a preprint—a system intentionally built to subvert the bottleneck of peer-reviewed publication. But the system of academic publishing and all the rewards built into it haven’t disappeared. Which means for now at least, biology careers aren’t made on bioRxiv. Traditional journals still hold the key to postdoc positions, tenure lines, and lab funding.
It wouldn’t be the first time that people used an online platform in weird ways its creators never intended—Twitter bots pushing fake news and Facebook groups sharing revenge porn. It’s impossible to know how people will use new tools before they actually use them. Are preprints a first step toward publication in a peer-reviewed journal, a working document, or something else entirely? In the absence of consensus, the rules around preprints are as varied as the biologists that publish them.
Of course, Church is hardly the norm. A well-published—nay, famous—scientist like George Church has a much easier time choosing to preprint than biologists early in their careers. There are risks to publishing online before peer review: Scientists may not acknowledge preprints as establishing priority of discovery. Peer-reviewed journals could reject a manuscript if it has previously appeared as preprint. And opening up the forum could also devolve the quality of the discussion. There’s already an app, developed by biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins, that allows people to swipe right on bioRxiv papers they like. Its creators say the “Tinder for pre-prints” is just for fun, but they do hope to learn from it how scientists value different kinds of work.