August 10th the American Chemical Society, a major publisher in the field of Chemistry, announced their intent to create a pre-print server for Chemistry focused papers. The reaction to this announcement have been far reaching and mixed.
Let’s step back a few paces and look at where the idea of pre-print servers took shape. In 1991, Paul Ginsparg recognized the need for central storage of TeX based preprints he and a colleague, Joanne Cohn, were sharing at Los Alamos National Laboratory. According to Wikipedia, the first version of this preprint server was called the “LANL Preprint Archive” and was initially focused on physics publications. As the research fields began to expand, Ginsparg relocated the servers to Cornell University in 1999 and adopted the name arXiv.org.
arXiv.org now servers Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance, Statistics, and various sub-disciplines. Cornell University and the Simons Foundation are the main financial supporters of arXiv.org, with other member institutions contributing between $2000-$4000 USD annually.
Three years ago bioRxiv launched to accommodate preprints in the biological sciences field. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press launched bioRxiv in 2013 and have nearly 3100 posted preprint publications. The pre-print server trend is catching on in other disciplines as well, Social Science Research Network developed a pre-print server for law, economics, and social science that was quickly purchased by Elsevier earlier this year. Engineering has welcomed a preprint server, engrXiv, dedicated to all aspects of engineering including “…outcomes like data, code, designs, and computational models, can be shared, peer-reviewed and cited using a single framework”
So what has taken Chemistry so long? Several sources (RSC’s Chemistry World, Nature, and Science Mag) have pointed to a combination of chemistry traditionally holding their results close until publication and many chemistry focused publications expressly rejecting any publication that has had any part published previously – online or otherwise.
How does the American Chemical Society believe they can overcome these hurdles?
Changing the way chemists have been conditioned – to hold their results and publications close until publication in a “high impact journal” – will not happen overnight. Encouraging data and publication sharing at the preprint stage will have to start as a grass roots movement. Preprint servers engage more of the scientific community earlier on in the publication process. They allow authors to receive constructive feedback from more of their peers sooner and encourage the scientific process to proceed more freely and quickly than relying on the traditional Journal initiated peer-review process. Science Magazine quote ACS’s Kevin Davies as saying
“It would be somewhat bizarre, if chemistry was left too much longer as the sole major scientific field that lacked a major preprint server.”
We agree, but ACS will need the supporters of preprint servers to drive usage and encourage adopters.
One way to encourage usage of a preprint server would be to increase the number of journals that accept submissions from preprint sources. ACS states that the decision to accept items published on the preprint server will fall to the individual journal editors themselves. Of ACS’s 50+ publications, only 20 are reported to accept items from preprint servers. Nature and Science have more liberal policies towards preprint servers, several have pontificated. It seems that the old adage is applicable here, only time will tell if additional journals will warm to the idea of accepting preprint reviewed manuscripts.
There is a growing push to make chemistry research more open and available. From the US requiring all government funded research be open access after a given amount of time under the restrictions of publishers to efforts like SOFI’s Knowledge Map to democratize data, many organizations and institutions are seeing data sharing as essential to moving science to the next level. Kevin Davies, VP of Publications at ACS, emphasizes to Chemistry World that “the intent is for the preprint server to be freely available globally for all interested readers…” And Mr. Davies emphasizes in the ACS press release that a preprint server would allow researchers and authors to “share early results and data with their scientist-colleagues ahead of formal peer review and publication”.
The benefits of preprint publication, beyond open availability, are heavily touted by users of arXiv.org. Users of arXiv mention that they received feedback on their postings in a few days, unlike the typical peer-review process, which can take months. The ACS announcement quotes Prof. Paul Alivisatos on his comments about the benefit a preprint server would have on chemistry
“…By its nature, peer review can be a trade-off between time and quality. The availability of a chemistry preprint server would provide researchers a speedy mechanism by which to share their results and data, and would, in turn, allow peer reviewers and journal editors to focus their efforts on assessing the scientific accuracy and quality of research articles prior to formal journal publication.”
Here at SOFI we are very much in favor of a Chemistry Preprint Server. The benefits of quickly sourcing more feedback on your manuscript prior to publication ensures a level of community acceptance of data and methods, allowing authors to begin the Journal publication process with a well-crafted and supported manuscript. Authors who engage with preprint services are able to inform their peers of their work and “time stamp” their contribution. A preprint server is not just another Journal, it is an open access, community driven exchange of data, information, and knowledge. Democratizing data and knowledge allows for a global exchange of ideas and encourages collaboration, invention, and innovation – this is the only way to move science forward at a rate necessary to address many of the pressing issues of our global society.
We look forward to ChemRxiv.