Pre-prints: building a practical guide and Q&As for junior scientists

Samuel L. Díaz-Muñoz
Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and Department of Biology, New York University

Pre-prints of research articles have been proposed as a way to advance scientific progress, establish priority of discovery, and ameliorate some of the current shortcomings of the peer review process. All these traits are intended to accelerate the pace of innovation. Innovation, mostly, but not invariably, is fueled by new researchers with different ideas. However, as academic science has become more competitive, junior researchers have become especially attuned to the power of incentives for career progress, which may not be aligned with increasing the pace of scientific discovery.

Leading proponents of pre-prints (many of whom are established investigators), envision junior researchers playing critical roles in the development and adoption of preprints. Many of the potential benefits of pre-prints are said to be especially helpful for junior researchers. Trainees and junior investigators are also proposed to play a big role in the development of pre-prints and post-publication peer review.

It seems to follow that plans for the wide adoption of pre-prints would need buy-in from junior researchers. Yet, it is not clear that the awareness of pre-prints among new scientists is anywhere close to a necessary critical mass. The subset of junior scientists that are aware of the existence of pre-prints, are likely to carefully weigh the benefits and costs of any new publishing innovation with their career advancement prospects.

To reach this critical mass, junior investigators need more information to understand the impact pre-prints will have on their careers. In turn, to shepherd this change in scientific publishing, proponents, policymakers, and gatekeepers must be aware of the concerns, needs, and objectives of this key constituency. New researchers especially need to understand not only tangible benefits, but all potential costs. Perceived costs can be powerful disincentives. Even if potential costs are rare (being scooped, or being in the center of a highly contentious scientific debate) and very unlikely to be borne by any given researcher, from an individual perspective, non-established investigators are unlikely to jump in unless the tangible benefits are high. In the long-term, many issues will ‘work themselves out’ or be self-correcting, but few junior researchers are willing to be the examples and accept potential setbacks in their careers in the meantime.

In the interest of advancing discussion at the upcoming ASAPbio Meeting and beyond, I have outlined a series of potential questions that young investigators may have about pre-prints. I have devised these questions based on personal experience and reading of online discussions, and I outline the rationale for each question. The answers (and any additional questions!) should come from the community. To facilitate this exchange I have set up an open, living document that anyone can contribute to, in order to aggregate collective knowledge on pre-prints and junior researchers. This document can serve as a resource for young investigators and also for policy makers and advocates to take into account the questions and concerns of newer trainees.

In line with the goals of ASAPbio and with a vision to facilitate action beyond the conference, I hope this resource will keep the community informed and help avoid the growing pains of a new system. Providing information and aligning incentives will go a long way to boosting and sustaining innovation in science.