Preprints and direct democracy

L. S. Lowry, “Punch and Judy”.

Scientific publishing is in a revolutionary phase, with some instructive lessons to draw from the political arena. 

There are two main types of democracy: direct and representative. In a direct democracy, literally everybody votes on a particular issue – such as occurs in a referendum or plebiscite. In a representative democracy, everybody votes on who will represent them in government, and delegates responsibility to those representatives thereafter. The power is with the people in both setups, but it’s a question of whether it’s directly or indirectly expressed.

In recent years, online tools and particularly social media seem to be fuelling a shift towards a form of decision-making that’s closer to direct democracy than representative democracy. Governments wishing to push a particular agenda will invoke the “will of the people”, connecting directly to their supporters through online platforms and attempting to dominate the discussion through message repetition and amplification.

While it’s great that political engagement is being encouraged – voter apathy has been a problem for some time in many countries – the concern in such a climate is that critical oversight is lost. By speaking directly to a largely unquestioning public, politicians can eschew tough questions from journalists and other expert monitors, and are free to operate with impunity. Michael Gove’s infamous line during the Brexit referendum that “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” remains the quintessential expression of this mindset.

Another key trait of such campaigns is their revolutionary flavour. The proponents will insist that “the people” are being exploited by a decision-making body that has acquired and concentrated too much power, and needs to be overthrown. In so doing, power will once more flow back to the people who have been cynically disenfranchised by their supposed representatives. The Brexit referendum again provides a great example, with the Vote Leave campaign’s “Take back control” slogan clearly resonating more profoundly than any factual arguments on either side.

Revolutions are not intrinsically a bad thing. On the contrary, political revolutions are justified if the population is indeed being exploited by an entrenched group that resists change. This applies especially if the entrenched group was originally intended to serve the population, and has instead enriched itself at the population’s expense.

Scientific publishing is itself in a revolutionary phase, having for many years been exploited by a cabal of for-profit publishers whose claims to represent the best interests of science are belied by their ruthless pursuit of profit margins at the expense of the community they supposedly serve.

In the life sciences, one of the most dramatic manifestations of this new mood has been the belated adoption of preprints for the dissemination of research findings. By posting their completed work directly on preprint servers such as bioRxiv, life scientists are able to communicate their latest results immediately, and without subjecting themselves to the tender mercies of publishers, whether for-profit or otherwise.

In this respect then, preprints represent a kind of direct democracy – the scientists’ work is communicated directly to the scientific community, free of interference. But that direct connection comes also without the oversight of experts. And regardless of what Michael Gove and his political ilk may believe, experts and expert opinions are definitely needed, always.

In science, that expert opinion is expressed in the form of peer review, and it remains essential. While it would undoubtedly be a great thing if all community members weighed in with their feedback on each preprint in their subject area, the fact remains that they’re usually too busy to do so unless asked. The peer review system, by deputising 2-3 expert readers to evaluate a manuscript, remains an imperfect but practical solution.

What we certainly wouldn’t want is a situation akin to what is occurring in the political arena, where scientists post their work online as a preprint and then use Twitter and other channels to ram it into the collective consciousness without expert evaluation. The shouting and the humble-bragging and the self-aggrandisement are what makes online discourse such an ambivalent experience for many, and to apply those methods to the uncritical dissemination of research findings would be at best a cynical course of action. The community seal of approval that comes from peer review remains sacrosanct.

It’s in this moment that the arrival of Review Commons, spearheaded by EMBO Press and ASAPbio is particularly welcome. By uncoupling peer review from journal submission, this empowers authors, ensures a fairer evaluation of the science without subjective impressions of journal status, but still provides that essential external and expert evaluation that will always be the hallmark of true science. 

If peer review can be outsourced in this way, it’s worth asking whether we will still need journals at all? Review Commons will facilitate a setup where the preprint, the peer review, the revised preprint, and the authors’ responses to reviewers are all uploaded as a bundle. Why not leave it at that?

The answer is yes, we will still need journals, arguably more so. As the scientific community continues to expand, the volume of data produced will scale proportionally. Preprints make it easier to get data online, and even with Review Commons providing peer review it’s still fair to anticipate a deluge of information. Just as quality news providers act as trusted sources of information on current affairs, journals will need to be the entities responsible for managing that flood of information and highlighting – by publishing – the pieces that are of most interest or of most value to each scientific sub-community. Join the revolution.

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