How to launch a transformative and sustainable forum for publication and scholarly critiques of research in the life sciences?

By Harinder Singh
Director, Division of Immunobiology
and the Center for Systems Immunology
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

This perspective is a result of the various insightful commentaries that have been posted on the ASAPbio site in the context of the HHMI/Wellcome/ASAPbio meeting on “Transparency, Recognition and Innovation in Peer Review in the Life Sciences.” The framework sketched below is an attempt to synthesize various ongoing efforts as well as intriguing ideas. It is clear from the various commentaries that our shared intent is to strengthen and accelerate research in the life sciences through transformation of the publication landscape.

It is now possible to see the general nature of the solution that many of us are pointing towards (see commentaries by B. Pulverer, EMBO, R. Kiley, Wellcome, R. Lawrence and V. Tracz, F1000). Pre-print servers are rapidly establishing themselves and will become the dominant forums for initial announcement i.e., publication of research findings. There is clear recognition that initial submissions of manuscripts should be rigorously screened for technical quality, primary data, reproducibility, statistical considerations, omission of key citations and malfeasance including plagiarism, before being published. Such screening procedures will have both shared and distinctive elements dependent on the subject matter. They need to be rapid, rigorous and evolvable. The latter is particularly important given the pace of expansion of new experimental as well as computational tools in the Life Sciences. Thus, initial publication of research findings on the servers will be based on their experimental, technical and ethical rigor.

Once a manuscript is so published it can undergo continuous, scholarly and transparent dialogs using a diverse and inclusive group of scientists (see commentaries by B. Stern and E. O’Shea, HHMI, H. Singh, CCHMC, M. Eisen, HHMI, T. Hyman, MPI and R. Vale, HHMI). Given the subject matter, any interested member of a suitable peer group (either individually or as a scientific team) could alert the authors of their intent to enter into a constructive and critical dialog, using the server. Each peer group member or team will be strongly incentivized to engage in a scholarly manner as after the dialog with the authors their critique cum perspective will be published on the server and generate a PubMed citation. Simultaneously, the authors will have the opportunity to post a revised version of their publication based on the input of one or more peers that they engaged with. In this structure, scientific peers will be strongly encouraged to not simply provide critiques of the published manuscript but also wider commentaries that illuminate conceptual or technological challenges as well as advances occurring within the field that the manuscript is positioned in. Authors will be encouraged to simultaneously engage with multiple peers through the server, if there is suitable interest in the work within a reasonable period of time. In such instances authors will decide on release of a revised manuscript which will be co-published along with the multiple critiques of their peers. Such scholarly critiques will be distinguished from posted comments as they will be based on reasoned back and forth with the authors and culminate in a formalized response by the authors being co-published with the critique(s). It should be noted that in this structure, any published manuscript could undergo multiple revisions over time. Thus, according to this framework, manuscripts could be rapidly published after review of their experimental, technical and ethical rigor. In a second phase, they would undergo a continuous process of modification as deemed by the authors based on elicited interest and critical dialogs with scientific peers.

What has remained largely unaddressed in our commentaries so far is how such systemic change can be brought about? Should we as a community resort to gradualism or punctuated equilibrium? Both strategies have been deployed in biological evolution. There are reasonable arguments for each strategy and they are reflected in our commentaries, particularly on the nature of peer review. I wish to argue for punctuated equilibrium at this point in historical time for the dissemination of research advances in the life sciences.

As many of us have noted, we are undergoing an explosive expansion of biological knowledge that is stressing our antiquated systems of research funding, training and publication. If we wish to more effectively harness and intensify this “Cambrian explosion” of biological knowledge then we need to act accordingly. What is needed is for the major agencies that fund research in the life sciences and the community of scientists that they nurture, to take charge. Thus, a historic and profound step could be taken, if for example, two or more major funding agencies such as the NIH, HHMI, EMBO, DFG, MRC and the Wellcome Trust (apologies for many omissions) were to come together and require that research in the life sciences funded by them must be published and undergo scholarly and transparent dialogs with peers on a shared platform supported by the consortium. Furthermore, the detailed guidelines for initial publication and subsequent scholarly exchanges would be developed by the communities of scientists funded by the consortium. These scientists would also define the peer group for a diverse and inclusive forum. Thus, as a community we can affect profound change. My hope is that the HHMI/Wellcome/ASAPbio meeting will serve to catalyze this transformative possibility at a historic juncture in the advancement of the life sciences.