Science is a community effort, but publishing has long been co-opted by commercial interests, where researchers’ labor in authoring, reviewing, and editing are used to bolster publishers’ profits. Preprints are free to post and read, but to what extent do commercial interests influence the space? The theme of Open Access week 2023 was “community over commercialisation” and ASAPbio hosted an event investigating this theme in biomedical preprint servers.
In some fields preprints have been a staple since the 1990’s whilst in others preprints remain relatively obscure. Despite this, there are now over 50 preprint servers ranging from field or country-specific to general servers. Each server has their own approach to governance, funding and features. Some preprint servers are community orientated whilst others are owned and operated by publishing companies. In fact, the largest biomedical preprint server in terms of monthly volume is Research Square, which has close ties to Springer Nature. It is vital that we hold conversations around how preprint servers are controlled to ensure that the publishing industry does not co-opt preprints as has occurred with many facets of open access.
Do preprint servers align to open principles?
The event opened with a talk by ASAPbio board member and consultant, Jennifer Lin. Jennifer began by looking at the trends in preprint posting across servers since 2019, highlighting that some servers had actually contracted in recent years whilst others have grown, although none had grown as much as they had during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jennifer reiterated the theme of open access week, stating that the UNESCO recommendation on open science calls to prioritise community over commercialisation. Jennifer highlighted that often, commercial (financial stakeholder) interests are prioritised over community needs by owners of commercial entities and that there is a cost to this; primarily the erosion of trust.
Jennifer then discussed the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure (POSI) and how these relate to preprint servers. The POSI principles cover three elements; governance, sustainability and insurance. The POSI principles are highly relevant for preprint servers, however no server has currently adopted these.
Jennifer then presented data looking at the licenses used by preprints across different servers. Servers that allowed authors to select the preprint licenses themselves, had much greater variation in licenses used whereas servers like Research Square, which requires a CC-by license were uniform and had preprints that were much more open. Jennifer returned to the POSI commitments and invited participants to ask questions of the preprint servers as to their adherence to the POSI commitments. Jennifer ended by reinforcing that currently, biomedical preprint servers are far from these principles but that POSI represents a framework that can bring preprint servers to a much more community focussed place.
Sustainability and resources: benefits of commercial affiliation?
Following the talk by Jennifer, there was a panel discussion with representatives from Shirley Decker-lucke (SSRN), Stephanie Orphan (arXiv) and Elisa Pettinelli Barrett (Research Square). The discussion began with an overview of the three preprint servers represented and their unique features. The panel then addressed the theme of OA week directly with arXiv highlighting that they are financially independent and community focussed, ensuring that the community is prioritized. SSRN and Research Square both discussed the benefits that commercial backing can bring to the community such as additional features and “add-on” services provided on a fee basis. SSRN specifically pointed to their response to meta-research findings and community feedback as to how they prioritize feature development.
In any community-owned endeavor, sustainability is always a concern. This was one area in which both SSRN and Research Square were able to show the benefits of commercial partners in providing sustainability; SSRN in particular highlighted elements that would not be possible for them without commercial backing such as new discussions around the use of AI. However, arXiv illustrated that the association with a major university, Cornell, provided significant stability, even if this is no longer the source of financial backing. In the sustainability discussion, the servers agreed that open infrastructure was important. Research Square discussed the role that institutions could play in providing support and financially sustain preprint servers in the future.
The moderator next asked the panel about collaboration. A participant in the comments pointed out that all servers collaborate to an extent on interoperability aspects such as PIDs and licenses. Although the servers do not directly collaborate, arXiv holds regular meetings with bioRxiv/medRxiv to ensure they are coordinated and all panelists expressed interest in on-going joint discussions.
The panel Q&A ended with a question about globalization of the preprint servers. SSRN highlighted that they allow posting of preprints in any language as long as the metadata and abstract are provided in English. This is also the case for preprints submitted to arXiv. SSRN recently reissued some of their FAQs in Chinese due to an influx of preprints from China. Research Square added that the abundance of research in English forms a vicious cycle as this leads to more English language research. Arxiv also pointed out that there is a growing trend of countries desiring country-specific repositories.
One of the recurring themes in the panel discussion was the lack of a good open source infrastructure for preprint servers. Additionally, the role of ASAPbio in convening different stakeholders was highlighted as a means of improving collaboration and aligning protocols. All servers held community at the center of how they operate with SSRN providing examples of how they actively respond to community feedback. Panelists shared the benefits of commercial backing for preprint servers, particularly highlighting some of the new and improved features and, perhaps even more importantly, the sustainability in funding compared to other funding models.
Most wanted preprint server features: APIs, active community reviewing and advanced commenting features
Following the engaging panel discussion, participants were invited to take part in a whiteboard activity (featured image) whereby they were put in charge of designing a new preprint server. Participants were asked to consider how their server would be governed, how they would ensure sustainability and which features they would have on their own server. A flurry of activity followed with participants particularly focussing on features. Participants voted on some of their most desired features, with APIs, active community reviewing and advanced commenting features receiving votes. Hopefully the list of features will be useful for existing preprint servers to consider, with some of those present asking for more clarification on some of the desired features. When asked about how their desert-island preprint server would make decisions, community was at the heart of most comments. In particular, participants voted for frequent community surveys, an advisory board and accessibility. Community was also heavily featured in response to how participants would fund their servers, suggesting that the community heavily prefers non-commercial models such as library and funder memberships, grants and community donations. Ultimately, the exercise reinforced the vital role of community in how preprint servers operate.
This event highlighted the importance of ensuring that community comes above commercialisation whilst also reinforcing the benefits that can come by partnering with a commercial entity, including additional features and sustainability. If you missed the event, you can find a recording here.