U.K.’s Medical Research Council encourages use of preprints

By Kelsey Hampton

On Tuesday, the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom released a statement “actively encouraging” researchers to share pre-peer reviewed manuscripts on preprint servers such as bioRxiv and others. The MRC’s endorsement of including preprints in grant applications adds to the increasing support in scientific communities to adopt a rapid, effective system to demonstrate productivity and disseminate scientific findings.

“The MRC’s decision to accept preprints bolsters their status as a well-respected form of communication in the life sciences,” said Jessica Polka, director of ASAPbio. “Policies such as this one will increase the visibility of preprints and incentivize their use in the early dissemination of research results. Funders that enact forward-looking preprint policies such as the MRC’s and those of the HFSP, EMBO Long-term Fellowships, and Simons Foundation are in a powerful position to modernize scientific communication and accelerate the pace of discovery.”

Preprints are completed manuscripts that have not yet undergone peer review, and they are a way to expedite the flow of information, provide evidence of productivity, and make available negative or otherwise unpublishable data. While publishing preprints has been common practice in the physical sciences for 25 years, their adoption by the life sciences has been slow. Concerns have been raised by some regarding the quality of preprint content and the potential for data “scooping.”

In their statement, the MRC addresses these concerns by recognizing preprints as early claims to new findings. Additionally, the MRC proposes that preprints could prevent “salami slicing” of data while still providing evidence of productivity. Evidence of productivity will clearly be advantageous for early career investigators or trainees.

The announcement by the MRC to encourage the use of preprints and their inclusion in grant applications is an important step forward for preprints in biomedical research. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health solicited feedback from investigators to determine the agency’s official stance regarding the inclusion of preprints in grant applications. Furthermore, the 4D Nucleome Project recently issued a mandate requiring preprint submission of all manuscripts funded by the project, and the recently announced Chan Zuckerburg Biohub will also require its investigators to submit preprints of their manuscripts. In addition to these efforts, support from the MRC and other funding agencies will set the standard to make preprints the new normal for biomedical research manuscripts.

Although the MRC’s endorsement continues the trend of wider acceptance of preprints in biomedical research, implementation will come with challenges. When cited in grant proposals, preprints must be accessible to reviewers. Each server uses different formats for papers (html vs. pdf, for example), contains different search capacities, and has different methods of permanently identifying documents. These differences could result in preprints not being easily traceable among the numerous servers. However, this problem could be mitigated by instituting a common identifier format or a common accession system to consolidate preprints from numerous servers. ASAPbio is currently working towards a commonly accessible server for preprints.

headshot2Kelsey Hampton wants to help improve the biomedical research system, and she believes that the best way to do this is to foster communication between researchers, policymakers and the public. Kelsey can be reached via email (khampton@kumc.edu) or Twitter (@kelseyrhampton).

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