Op-Ed: Science Before Peer-Review
by Abin Abraham (G4)
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was impressed with how scientists responded quickly across a range of disciplines. Research labs not only donated their equipment and time but also their intellectual ingenuity. This was obvious in the number of COVID-19 preprints that were rapidly uploaded.
Although preprints have existed in other scientific disciplines, they have recently gained popularity in the biomedical sciences. Formally, a preprint is a full draft of a manuscript that the authors share online before it has gone through peer-review. Online platforms like bioRxiv and medRxiv are repositories where you can post your preprint.
At first glance, preprints fly in the face of conventional practice. It is rare to share scientific findings in a complete draft before peer-review. But considering how peer-review can take months to years before a paper is published, preprints have an obvious advantage: they communicate the findings immediately to the scientific community. While some worry that posting before publication may result in others ‘scooping’ your work, formal repositories like bioRxiv timestamp your submission; this creates a public record for when the findings were first communicated.
Many papers and commentaries have evaluated the effect of preprints on scientific discourse and progress. In the biomedical sciences, preprints are a sort of experiment. Much like a very young scientist trying to realize their place in the scientific ecosystem. While the jury is still out on preprints, I will speak from my personal experience on posting to bioRxiv and medRxiv.
My lab posts almost all of our manuscripts as preprints. The effect of immediate communication, we hope, allows science to progress a bit faster. This is especially true when the review process can become lengthy. From a trainee’s perspective, it highlights the cutting-edge of scientific research. While peer-review is far from perfect, reading preprints also exercises one’s ability to critically evaluate a manuscript. Finally, preprints do not have an impact factor. I think this helps us consider the scientific ideas and findings that might otherwise be overlooked by the prestige of a popular journal.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Vanderbilt MSTP.