Mistaking the symptom for the disease: preprints in biomedical science

t-shirt celebrating preprints (created by Michael Eisen)
t-shirt for promoting preprints (by Michael Eisen)

Back in February, much significance was attributed to the fact that some biologists, including Nobel laureate Carol Greider, were posting their research articles directly on the web. Amy Harmon wrote about it for the New York Times and others looked for reasons why a culture of preprints—research published online before being submitted for peer-review—developed in physics, but not biology1,2.

Notably missing from this coverage, however, was a critical look at the preprint movement itself and the roots of the problem it aims to fix. Academic biomedical science today is plagued with hard issues. There’s the rich-get-richer phenomenon, where 50% of NIH grants go to a small number of already well-funded labs3. The competition for funding and a dearth of academic positions drive what Marc Kirschner called a “perverted view of impact”: an obsessive desire to measure and rank scientific progress, which is often reduced to number of publications in high-profile journals or perception of clinical relevance4. The system also suffers from rampant sexism, conscious and unconscious, that repels women away from science5,6,7. There is also the corrupting influence of money on science, including hawkish patenting practices that conflict with the university’s basic tenets8. Working within this system can be an exercise in dissonance: the incentives for success are at odds with promoting open, diverse and adventurous basic science.

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[Cute Title]: [Serious Title]

Science paper titles are dusty affairs as far as the general reader is concerned. Take “Structural basis of lipoprotein signal peptidase II action and inhibition by the antibiotic globomycin”, an actual recent title. To people in the know that might sound terribly exciting, but outside the field it falls a bit flat.

Some authors try to spice their titles up, using a familiar phrase or riffing on one. This is followed by the but-seriously-colon, and a more solemn title. My current favorite is “Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases” (Kumar et al. 2014).

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A modest proposal for new journals

Three suggestions for journals with a different incentive structure than the current scientific publishing model.

ONCE

once

Assume that ONCE is an established scientific journal that publishes broadly in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, computer science, social science and so on. The journal uses basic peer-review that keeps out total nonsense. But beyond a sanity check and technical soundness review, almost all manuscripts get in.

The thing is, you can only publish in ONCE, once.

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