The strength and necessity of preprints in accelerating the pace of science became obvious to the world last year, when most of our day-to-day revelations about Covid-19 came from preprints. Why do preprints speed up our scientific exploration? Instead of submitting your manuscript to a scientific journal and going through an often lengthy peer review - rejection - resubmission cycle, you publish it online as a preprint before submitting it to the journal. Your scientific findings become publicly available instantly, and other scientists can start to build on them while your manuscript goes through the peer review process before being published in a scientific journal. However, the Covid-19-induced explosion in the adoption of preprints by the scientific community has also laid bare some of its growing pains. To discover the work that is happening behind the scenes to strengthen author-based publishing in the form of preprints, I reached out to Dr. Prachee Avasthi (PA). Why? Because she wears many impressive hats. One of them is serving as the president of ASAPBio: a scientist-driven nonprofit that advocates for innovation and transparency in life sciences communication. To my surprise, Dr. Avasthi accepted my request for an interview within minutes! Our conversation focused on how preprints benefit our scientific community, and on some of the common misconceptions about preprints.
Nele Haelterman (NH): Before we get started, could you introduce yourself, tell us where you are and what you do?
PA: I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. My lab studies how the cytoskeleton, specifically microtubule and actin structures, are built and regulated in cells. We use single-celled green algae as a model system. I do a lot of work to push for a better way of doing and communicating science through ASAPbio (as president), eLife (as a member of the board of directors), and rescuing biomedical research (on the steering committee). I also started a worldwide peer-mentorship and support community for junior faculty called New PI Slack which has now grown to several thousand users across all inhabited continents.
NH: Could you tell us a bit about ASAPBio? How did you get involved and what was your motivation?
PA: ASAPbio is a community-driven organization dedicated towards promoting innovation in life sciences communication. I love telling the story of how I got involved because it’s sort of how I wish everyone would get involved in anything. So you may know that in 2016 ASAPbio had a limited attendance meeting at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) HQ that they live-streamed. I watched this meeting from my sofa in Kansas. I was completely unaffiliated with the organization or the people there. I was so persuaded by this better way of sharing our research! At the time, I had just started my own laboratory, so it was the first time I was the one largely making the decision of where or how to publish. I decided I would preprint all our work from the onset. I was so taken by the benefits of preprints for speed, openness, collaboration, and more that I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. I talked about preprints in our faculty meeting, to the research committee in charge of internal funding, to the head of the promotion and tenure committee, to the postdoctoral association. ..everyone. I also turned a student journal club into a preprint journal club and we sent feedback to authors. I cold-tweeted the executive director of ASAPbio to ask if she wanted to organize a subgroup at the upcoming large society meeting in my field and she agreed. Through doing the work first along with my other advocacy in the community to support junior faculty , I was asked to join the Board of Directors of ASAPbio and was recently named president. So I went literally from random person watching the meeting from their sofa to my current position through not waiting for permission to act. And I encourage all others to use their creativity and energy to do the same rather than waiting for others to give them permission or a position to do so.
NH: To help readers who are not all too familiar with the concept of preprints: what are the benefits of publishing your work in the form of a preprint?
PA: First, preprinting can yield increased citations which has been shown for papers that were preprinted first relative to those that had not. Another benefit is having access to earlier feedback from a broader community of experts interested in the work instead of only 2-3 secret reviewers. Because preprints are citable and have a digital object identifier or DOI, they can also establish priority, reducing fears of being scooped while papers sit on the desk of overburdened reviewers. Preprints also have the power to facilitate and broaden collaborations by getting your work in front of colleagues with complementary expertise before its final version of record. Another big advantage is that preprints are a product that can actually be read by evaluators for jobs/fellowships/grants and awards. This is an incalculable benefit to students and postdocs and I would urge everyone to consider it if for no other reason. If you are looking for an overview of the available preprint servers, here is a comprehensive directory.
Frankly, the reason why I’m such a strong advocate for preprints is because I can’t imagine having survived as a junior PI without them. I know my lab would be less far along in our science, have fewer collaborations, and be a lot more nervous about funding if not for preprints. I want everyone to experience these benefits but also want to live in the future, where science moves faster because of it. Perhaps most importantly, sharing our work when we, the authors, are ready for the world to see it, is just way more fun than the anti-climactic process of directly sending it into a black hole of secret review. And we often post preprints before submission so knowing the world has seen it already and given us some feedback completely eliminates the anxiety of waiting for reviews. Science is just more fun, open, fair, and fast with preprints.
NH: Preprints have slowly gained visibility and support among biologists, around the world, but there is still a lot of resistance in the life science community. Are there general concerns that you continue to hear or you find that different countries have a different view of the pros and cons of preprints?
PA: I’ll be honest that I have yet to find a person who I was unable to persuade through direct discussions about preprints. This may be due in part to the fact that when people come to talk to me about it, they are already curious and just lack some fundamental information that can help them feel more comfortable taking the leap. So they’re already sort of looking to be convinced. Concerns about scooping have decreased as preprint adoption spreads, and people really start to see that preprints are citable and can actually protect you from being scooped rather than a scooping risk.
Other concerns are related to peer review, regarding work being available (particularly if it’s related to human health) that could be picked up by journalists and the public before vetting. We are really aware of this concern and have an ASAPbio project called Preprints in the Public Eye to develop some best practices for the broader advertisement and coverage of preprints prior to peer review. Of course journal publication is by no means a guarantee of correctness either, and arguably can lend a false sense of security, so responsible sharing and broad evaluation is something we should always think about regardless of the medium. But generally, once funders like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed preprints in grant applications, the resistance decreased significantly. I think most people see the benefits but sometimes just are nervous about what they aren’t familiar with.
NH: What advice would you give to early career researchers who would like to submit their work as a preprint, but run into resistance from their mentor? How can they convince them of the benefits of publishing a preprint?
PA: Go take a look at the resources like our ASAPbio FAQ page and elsewhere on our site. I think information and demystification of the process are our strongest allies. In all seriousness, I have often asked ECRs to have their mentor come talk to me or anyone else who is a vocal proponent of preprints. We’re not hard to find. Most of us can’t shut up about preprints because the idea is just that good and good ideas spread like wildfire. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about this.
The most persuasive argument of the many I listed above might be the advancement of ECRs, who are the most hurt by the enormous delay of the ever-lengthening process of journal review and closed door bouncing between journals. So step 1 might simply be for ECRs to be very clear with their mentor that preprinting is what they want. They might further explain they would like to have the advantage of evaluators being able to read and weigh their work sooner so that they can compete with their peers who are already preprinting. The fact that preprints are now accepted for various funding applications is a fairly persuasive point too :)
NH: Ok, you have convinced us! We would love to get involved and help raise awareness of the importance of preprints! How and where should we start?
PA: This is my favorite question. Read preprints and make them part of your regular science diet. Review preprints and send comments to authors so they can improve their work. In fact, question EVERYTHING you read as if it were a preprint so you can decide for yourself what you think about the work without relying on the knowledge that a small number of people reviewed some aspects of the work. Beyond that, each one of us has the power to change how we share our research and how preprints are viewed/evaluated. We can light individual fires of change to contribute to the larger cultural shift needed to change hiring/promotion/funding/tenure policies from the ground up. Indeed the most frequent reason I hear AGAINST policy change in accepting preprints from the top down is that the community willingness needs to come first. So arm yourself with knowledge about preprints and share the information with all those who you also want to benefit from this rapid, open form of research communication. And join us in the ASAPbio community where you can engage with other passionate people all pushing for a version of science we want for ourselves and for those who come after.