ASAPbio and Preprints – A Perspective from a Junior Faculty Member

James Fraser, UCSF

Can we move towards more open and rapid sharing of scientific results without putting younger scientists careers at risk?  Ideally we want evaluation (of candidates for faculty positions, of promotion of Assistant Professors, of graduate students for fellowships, or of grants for funding) to be thorough and based entirely on a careful study of the science. Young scientists are optimistic about more open and transparent evaluation systems. But we are also worried about the pragmatics of careers as the system is in flux.  Will  preprints be helpful to trainees and junior faculty who are in the most fragile situation with regard to publishing and career advancement?  Could preprints even be harmful to young scientists, perhaps making them vulnerable to getting scooped and thus be dangerous?  My experiences as a non-tenured junior faculty have uncovered many positives of preprints.  My relatively new laboratory (my faculty appointment began in 2013) has started using them and experienced many benefits, and we are not turning back.   Our celebrations when a paper is posted on BioRxiv are joyous and dwarf the, often exhausted, feelings we experience when the work is eventually published in traditional venues.

I think that the wider use of preprints will help postdocs, Junior Faculty, and the lab members of young labs. Pre-peer review publication shortens the time to when evaluators can see work from a new lab, allowing them to make a more informed decision about the quality of the work. There is a widespread feeling that current practices favor a cursory reading the published journal titles on a CV instead of a careful reading of past and proposed work. I contend that, given the chance, there is also a (perhaps surprising) willingness to actually read the work prior to traditional publication.

I base this position primarily on two recent experiences. First, I am currently serving on a faculty search committee at UCSF. Multiple candidates attached work that is yet to be published in conventional venues. Some had publicly posted preprints on BioRxiv or Arxiv, whereas others attached submitted manuscripts. Several of these candidates made the short list for full consideration by the entire committee. I expect that at least two of them will be interviewed. The lesson is simple – scientists should apply when they think a work is ready to be shared, not only after their work has achieved the journal’s stamp of approval.

Second, my student, Ben Barad, posted a preprint of his work in February, 2015. The paper was eventually published online in August after a smooth publication process with a supportive editor and constructive reviews requesting only minor revisions. In between February and August: our software was downloaded by multiple groups around the world and used locally at UCSF; I was invited to a meeting in Boston to discuss the work’s importance for the field’s data repository (EMDB); Ben was invited to speak at a Bay Area meeting to present the work; and Ben was awarded an ARCS fellowship that included a link to the preprint in the publications section of the application. Importantly, we hadn’t published in this field (cryoEM) previously.  I think that posting a preprint gave us a 6 month head start on interacting with a new set of colleagues and was essential in helping my student gain funding.

Preprints will also help labs with more limited track records when being evaluated for grants and promotion. Preliminary and recently published data are essential for creating the figures included in most grant applications, but due to space limitations these data are often briefly and incompletely described. A citation to the preprint can allow the interested reviewer to examine a more thorough description of the work (much as they would for a recently published paper). Given the time papers spend in review (6-18 months) and the long delays between submitting grants and funding (often close to one year), posting preprints can greatly accelerate the opportunity for a new lab to demonstrate productivity and to be thoroughly evaluated based on a more current view of the work.

Of course some evaluators will ignore preprints, much like they might ignore the content of papers now. But posting preprints offers people the chance to be more thoroughly evaluated, which is especially beneficial for younger scientists.