First past the post

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A quick tip of the hat this week from TIR to Nature Communications. In an editorial published on September 12, they have announced that from now on they will list (on an opt-in basis) all preprints undergoing review for publication in the journal. The move is an important step in the ongoing change to the way that priority of discovery is determined in research.

In the past, priority of discovery has been determined solely by who published first. The problem – and it’s a problem that’s become more profound – is that the time taken from submission to publication can vary considerably between journals.

In truly reprehensible cases (and just about any biologist out there can quote one), journals have decided to reject a paper that they previously considered publishable, solely because a competing paper with similar conclusions is published elsewhere first. This is grossly unfair on authors, who have no control over the duration of the peer review process.

The burgeoning popularity of preprints in the biological sciences is largely because it hands some control back to the authors. When a research paper is ready for publication, it can be publicly deposited in the preprint server (e.g. bioRxiv), thereby establishing priority, and also enabling informal feedback*. Coincident with deposition in the preprint server, or at some later date, the authors will also submit the paper for formal peer review in a journal.

This new paradigm, whereby preprints establish priority but publication provides a formal seal of approval, looks to have acquired consensus status in the research community. The next step is the slow process of implementation, as research groups accustom themselves to the new protocol.

It’s in this spirit that announcements like those from Nature Communications are so welcome, as they raise awareness of the utility of preprints, promote the new paradigm, and also assist in the propagation of a research paper’s main claims. Science can only benefit from increased transparency of this type.



*The physics community has long used the same model for publication with their arXiv preprint server.

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