A few weeks ago, Jacob wrote a blog post about his recent experience with posting preprints to bioRxiv. His verdict? “…preprints are still an experiment rather than a resounding success.” That sounds about right to me. I’m bearish on preprints right now because the very word implies that the “real” product will be the one that eventually appears “in print”. Don’t get me wrong–I think posting preprints is a great step toward more openness in biology, and I applaud the people who post their research to preprint servers. Preprints are also a nice work-around to the increasingly long time between a manuscript’s submission and its final acceptance in traditional journals; posting a preprint allows important results to be shared more quickly. There’s a lot of room for improvement, though. With some changes, I think preprint servers could better encourage a real conversation between a manuscript’s authors and readers. Here are some of my thoughts on how they might achieve that. I know there are several flavors of preprint servers out there, but for this post I’m going to use bioRxiv for my examples.
It’s 2016, we’ve got undergraduates doing gene editing, but most scientific publications are still optimized for reading on an 8.5×11” piece of paper. Preprints tend to be even less readable–figures at the end of the document, with legends on a separate page. The format discourages casual browsing of preprints, and it ensures the preprint will be ignored as soon as a nicely typeset version is available elsewhere. I will buy a nice dinner for anyone who can make preprints display like a published article viewed with eLife Lens.
bioRxiv allows revised articles to be posted prior to publication in a journal, but I would like a format that makes it really easy for authors to improve their articles. Wikipedia is a great model for how this could work. On Wikipedia, the talk page allows readers and authors to discuss ways to improve an article. The history of edits to a page shows how an article evolves over time and can give authors credit for addressing issues raised by their peers. Maintaining good version history prevents authors from posting shoddy work, fixing it later, and claiming priority based on when the original, incomplete version of the article was posted.
Crowd-source peer review
Anyone filling in a reCAPTCHA to prove they’re not a robot could be helping improve Google Maps or digitize a book. What if preprint servers asked users questions aimed at improving an article? Is this figure well-labeled? Does this experiment have all of the necessary controls? What statistical test is appropriate for this experiment? With data from many readers about very specific pieces of an article, authors could see a list of what their audience wants. It looks like we need to repeat the experiments in Figure 2 with additional controls. Everybody likes the experiments in Figure 3, but they hate the way the data are presented.
Become the version of record
Okay, this one’s a definitely a stretch goal. Right now preprints get superseded by the “print” version of the article, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Let’s imagine a rosy future in which articles on bioRxiv are kept completely up-to-date. Articles are typeset through Lens, making them more readable than a journal’s PDF. There’s a thriving “talk” page where readers can post comments or criticisms. Maybe the authors do a new experiment to address readers’ comments, and it’s far easier to update the bioRxiv article than to change the journal version. At that point, bioRxiv would become the best place to browse the latest research or make a deep dive into the literature. Traditional journals could still post their own versions of articles, provided they properly cite the original work, of course.