Biology Papers Are Currency

I recently came across this putzish Ars Technica story about preprints in biology, and it demostrates how little many supposedly knowledgeable people understand the professional incentives of biologists, best demonstrated by this section (boldface mine):

This move has been met with… mixed feelings. For reasons that are not clear to me, I follow a lot of people in the biomed and bio fields on Twitter, and I’ve been rather bemused by their reactions to bioRxiv. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like an obviously good thing, but not everyone is responding as such…

There’s another way to look at the effect of this informal peer review. ArXiv papers start with no reputation at all, which is different from an article that gets published in Physical Review Letters. By virtue of the name of the journal, the work starts off with a better reputation than the same work published in, say, Optics Letters. The situation is true even if the content is exactly the same—the publisher makes the difference.

But if the manuscript is never published, any prominence it attains is purely due to its content. Any paper that acquires a significant reputation on the arXiv has done it by virtue of being truly important (or, in some cases, truly infamous).

The issue has very little to do with reputation or information transfer to other scientists (in my experience, meetings are the best way to stay current). In biology, papers are currency. To put this simply, do you know the difference between a couple of papers in BiorXiv and in journals?

$250,000 per year in direct costs from NIH, and somewhere between $75,000 and $125,000 in indirect costs.

NIH, when assessing grants, looks at publications as evidence of successful progress. In addition, unpublished papers can’t be cited in grant applications. Maybe it shouldn’t be like this, but for now, it is.

That doesn’t mean papers shouldn’t be submitted to BiorXiv (additional comments can’t hurt and communicating early is good), but as long as publication in journals is the funding standard in biology, unpublished manuscripts won’t be a priority, and they won’t be taken very seriously (and there could be minor risks in getting scooped–again, it’s not about prestige, it’s money at stake here; why risk it?).

In other words, if you want to change this, you need to change the funding structure, not the ‘culture.’

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1 Response to Biology Papers Are Currency

  1. I think you’re drawing an unwarrantedly sharp line between “funding structure” and “culture”. If a grant is scored highly by a review section, then the program manager will generally fund it. So the question is, does the review section care about preprints or not?

    I received an R01 based largely on published work in one paper and one preprint. The review summary contained many positive words about the utility of my software and the impact of my having made it available pre-publication. Admittedly, I’m in bioinformatics where preprints are more normal, but this was also in 2014.

    So I’m more optimistic about this than you are.

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