Contributed by Jessica Polka, Ph.D.
Any biologist who’s been to a scientific conference knows that sharing our work before formal publication accelerates the pace of research. By giving talks or poster presentations, we can find new collaborators, receive constructive feedback and gain recognition that can help secure a future job. And the benefits are not just individual; every person in the audience can be stimulated by new ideas and make connections that enrich their own science.
But conferences also have their limitations. They’re private, so some scientists, especially those without ample financial resources, are excluded from this information exchange. Furthermore, there’s no permanent record of most talks or posters, making it difficult to cite information communicated in this way.
Fortunately, there’s another tried and tested way to communicate results before formal peer review–by using preprints as the physics, mathematics and computer science community has for the past 25 years. In physics, preprints coexist with journals. The majority of preprints eventually appear in journal articles, but articles that have appeared as preprints get cited more and help their authors in many intangible ways. However, despite the presence of two innovative and rapidly growing biology servers (bioRxiv and PeerJ), preprints have not yet reached their potential in the life sciences.
ASAPbio (Accelerating Science and Publication in biology) was originally founded by four Rescuing Biomedical Research members – Ron Vale, Daniel Colón-Ramos, Harold Varmus and myself – to catalyze conversations about how the widespread use of preprints could benefit the life sciences.
We organized a meeting at the HHMI in February to bring together various stakeholders – funders, journals, preprint servers and practicing scientists from senior and junior career stages. Through talks and discussions as well as feedback on draft statements on the use of preprints, strong agreement emerged on the potential benefits of preprints. In late May, a group of attendees published an article in Science summarizing these views.
In order to realize this vision of a preprint-friendly world, ASAPbio has now shifted into a new phase. We now need to go into greater depth to engage with working biologists, journals and funding agencies about the aspects of the challenge that matter to them. As the first step, we held a workshop for representatives of funding agencies at the National Institutes of Health in late May. Afterward, the funders announced that they plan to work together to define a common policy for grantees regarding the use of preprints in applications and progress reports. In addition, they asked ASAPbio “to develop a proposal describing the governance, infrastructure and standards desired for a preprint service that represents the views of the broadest number of stakeholders.” To do this, we are now planning a meeting of technical experts that will help us propose a framework for this system of collecting and archiving preprints.
Another important step happened on Monday, when the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Simons Foundation announced their support for ASAPbio in the form a $400,000 grant. Over the next 18 months, this grant will enable ASAPbio to continue its advocacy and outreach efforts with the help of a full-time director. In addition, James Fraser has agreed to join the ASAPbio leadership.
We’re hoping to facilitate many conversations in academic institutions, departments and scientific societies to broaden the support and use of preprints in the life sciences. But to reach a broad audience, we need your help. If you’d like to get involved, please sign up to become an ASAPbio Ambassador, or get in touch via our website.