Let us imagine a scenario in which two groups with similar discoveries backed by similar quality of data submit to two separate journals at the same time. For one group, the journal sends out the work for review, the reviews are favorable, and the work is published quickly. However, the other group is less fortunate and subject to the “samsara” of resubmissions and revisions; two journals reject the work and the third journal requires lengthy revisions. While imaginary, most scientists have done an even better controlled experiment of submitting the same paper and receiving different outcomes- rejected by top journal X and top journal Y, then proceeding rapidly to publication in top journal Z.
By submitting only to a journal, the scientist loses control of the timing of when their discovery is made public. That decision is made by a journal editor. In some cases, one can be lucky and it might sail through. In other cases, it may have to undergo many rounds of journal submissions and revisions. There is also perception and (perhaps a reality) that the top scientists at top institutions have an easier time getting work published quickly in top journals, whereas younger scientists and scientists from less well-known institutions can have a harder time. Preprints provide transparency, equity, and reliable timing of disclosure.
Furthermore, the initial manuscript submissions to journals are lost from the historical record. A scientist cannot claim “I made the discovery at the same time as scientist Y” but my paper took longer to get published. The journal review process occurs “behind the curtain”, the community and history will never know exactly what a scientist discovered or how data was interpreted <u>when</u> he/she initially submitted the work to a journal; there is no public record of this submission. Perhaps an injustice occurred when the journal delayed publication, thus delaying the transmission of an important discovery. However, perhaps there were fundamental problems in the data or in the original interpretation which came to light during the review. We simply don’t know.
Although not the intention of this article, Eric Lander’s article The Heroes of CRISPR (Lander, 2016 Cell) illustrates the unreliability of using journals for establishing the timing of disclosure with several examples:
“Mojica went out to celebrate with colleagues over cognac and returned the next morning to draft a paper. So began an 18- month odyssey of frustration. Recognizing the importance of the discovery, Mojica sent the paper to Nature. In November 2003, the journal rejected the paper without seeking external review; inexplicably, the editor claimed the key idea was already known. In January 2004, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences decided that the paper lacked sufficient ‘‘novelty and importance’’ to justify sending it out to review. Molecular Microbiology and Nucleic Acid Research rejected the paper in turn. By now desperate and afraid of being scooped, Mojica sent the paper to Journal of Molecular Evolution. After 12 more months of review and revision, the paper reporting CRISPR’s likely function finally appeared on February 1, 2005 (Mojica et al., 2005)”
“The authors proposed that the CRISPR locus serves in a defense mechanism—as they put it, poetically, ‘‘CRISPRs may represent a memory of ‘past genetic aggressions.’’’ Vergnaud’s efforts to publish their findings met the same resistance as Mojica’s. The paper was rejected from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Bacteriology, Nucleic Acids Research, and Genome Research, before being published in Microbiology on March 1, 2005.
Finally, a third researcher—Alexander Bolotin, a Russian emigre who was a microbiologist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research—also published a paper describing the extrachromosomal origin of CRISPR, in Microbiology in September 2005 (Bolotin et al., 2005). His report was actually submitted a month after Mojica’s February 2005 paper had already appeared—because his submission to another journal had been rejected.”
“Siksnys submitted his paper to Cell on April 6, 2012. Six days later, the journal rejected the paper without external review. (In hindsight, Cell’s editor agrees the paper turned out to be very important.) Siksnys condensed the manuscript and sent it on May 21 to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which published it online on September 4. Charpentier and Doudna’s paper fared better. Submitted to Science 2 months after Siksnys’s on June 8, it sailed through review and appeared online on June 28.”
Some journals, including EMBO Press titles, offer scoop protection at the time of preprint posting.