Proceedings of a Symposium
ChemRxiv: Publishing in the Age of Preprint Servers
Proceedings of a Symposium—in Brief
The American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) 2017 launch of ChemRxiv—a free, online preprint server designed specifically for the global chemical sciences community—has sparked renewed debate about the potential impacts of preprint servers on the research enterprise and the publishing process. A workshop held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Chemical Sciences Roundtable (CSR), in collaboration with ACS, at the 254th ACS National Meeting on August 22, 2017, in Washington, DC, provided a neutral forum for representatives of funding agencies, scientific journals, foundations, and academia to discuss their views.
Preprint servers provide a platform for publishing research results before they have undergone peer review. Proponents point to the advantages such as more quickly disclosing information and data than the time it takes to complete the peer review and journal publication process. Other advantages include the ability to solicit immediate feedback from the scientific community, the opportunity for young scientists to advance their careers more quickly, and, in the case of multiple researchers working on the same topic, the ability to more accurately document who is working on what aspect of a given research topic.
Preprint servers have been accepted publishing platforms in the physics and mathematics communities for more than 25 years. The biology community followed suit in 2013 and the chemical community in 2017. Note, however, that Elsevier did launch a chemistry preprint server in 2001 through its ChemWeb subsidiary, which did not succeed, and more recently launched a new server, ChemRN, nearly concurrently with the launch of ChemRxiv.
Given the absence of a preprint culture in chemistry, a symposium was held to explore the range of views about the potential pros and cons of preprint servers in the chemical sciences. The symposium, organized by CSR and ACS and held in August 2017, provided the opportunity for speakers and attendees to discuss their views on preprint servers for the chemical sciences and other disciplines. Highlights of those discussions are presented below.
PREPRINT SERVERS: LESSONS FROM OTHER FIELDS
A number of experts in the physical and biological sciences and engineering shared their perspectives on the use of preprint servers in their fields.
In the physics community “arXiv is a lifestyle,” according to speaker Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a chemistry Professor at Harvard University. Launched in 1991, arXiv has become an integral part of the research process for physicists, as evidenced by its 1.3 million postings to date. Professor Aspuru-Guzik believes the popularity of arXiv stems from physicists being able to see how much faster the research process becomes when preprints are publicly available.
BioRxiv, a preprint server for the biological sciences, was created in 2013. Sandra Schmid, Professor and Chair of the Biology Department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said she has used the server to improve her career, as a resource in hiring new faculty members, and as materials for grant reviews and tenure letters. According to Professor Schmid, bioRxiv has not yet gained a strong footing in the biological sciences culture, but the number of papers submitted to the server is growing exponentially. She feels it is a great resource for young scientists because communicating their results efficiently is essential to their career growth. Professor Schmid does not think preprint servers devalue the need for a peer-review process, pointing to the fact that 70% of the preprints submitted are eventually published in traditional peer-reviewed journals.
The preprint server engrXiv was introduced in July 2016. Devin Berg, an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, and one of the founders of engrXiv, said that it is still too early for engrXiv to be fully integrated into the engineering world. EngrXiv exists through a partnership with the Center for Open Science, which allows for the possibility to link preprint files with journal article files, increasing the number of citations for a particular work on Google Scholar. Even though the server was built with the specific needs of the community in mind, trust still needs to be developed for engrXiv to become successful, according to Lorena Barba, Associate Professor at The George Washington University.
A VIEW FROM FUNDERS
Carly Strasser, a Program Officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a foundation that has been involved in getting the biology community involved in the preprint ethos, stated that she urges her grantees to publish their work and views preprints as a form of publication. Preprint servers increase the chance that grant-funded research will be published, which is important for the foundation, she said. Neil Thakur, Special Assistant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said that NIH would not stand in the way if a scientific community wants preprint services, but he believes certain criteria should be established for the servers. For example, citations should mention that the source is a preprint and has not been peer reviewed, preprints should acknowledge funding sources and any competing interests, and preprint server policies should be transparent.
PERSPECTIVES FROM JOURNAL EDITORS
Journal editors at this symposium were mixed in their support for the adoption of ChemRxiv as a standard publishing practice for chemists. Editors from a spectrum of subfields within chemical sciences discussed the role that preprints can serve that traditional journals do not; how, if at all, preprints will affect the rigor of the review process; and potential effects on the publishing process overall.
A number of discussants raised concerns about the fact that preprints are considered publications. Paul Weiss, a Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and editor at ACS Nano, stated that “some of the novelty has been lost” once work has been posted to a preprint server. Professor Weiss remarked that the scientists can rely on the substantial amount of feedback on their work from the conferences and workshops they attend. If the argument to support preprint servers is its efficiency, Professor Weiss preferred a new fast-moving journal than a new preprint server.
Chad Mirkin, a Professor at Northwestern University and the associate editor for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), also expressed opposition to preprint servers. Professor Mirkin said the goal of JACS is to only publish original research, and once the work is posted as a preprint, it is no longer original. He also thinks the easy access to publishing that preprint servers provide could dilute the quality of publications and diminish the impact of large discoveries. Additionally, scientists might not share work in progress at conferences for fear that someone else will “scoop” their work and then quickly publish it on a preprint.
Other editors pointed to the lack of uniform policies as the biggest challenge to the uptake of preprint servers. Currently, about two-thirds of ACS editors allow papers that have been published on preprint servers in their respective journals; others do not allow it, JACS being one of them. The variety of policies is confusing for scientists, said Professor Barba. She stated that the community is hesitant to submit preprints, because they do not want to decrease their chances of being published in high impact, peer-reviewed traditional journals that do not support preprints. Anne McCoy, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Washington and the deputy editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A (JPCA), supported this claim and said that peer-reviewed journals need to be more transparent about their preprint policies.
Some editors are advocates for ChemRxiv. Laura Kiessling, a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and editor in chief for ACS Chemical Biology, is strongly in favor of the server because she feels that it will support young scientists who are otherwise unable to publish work quickly. Marshall Brennan from Nature Chemistry is also pro preprint, as he believes it is important to see research happening in real time. Dr. Brennan maintains that preprints are an effective way of highlighting work that is stuck in the lengthy review process. Additionally, preprint servers allow for research data to be openly accessible, as opposed to the majority of journals.
PERCEPTIONS OF PREPRINT SERVERS IN ACADEMIA
Several topics were discussed among the academia representatives. Professor Aspuru-Guzik brought up the matter of establishing priority for one’s research. Professor Aspuru-Guzik stated that if multiple groups are working on the same topic of research concurrently, preprints will benefit both groups by showing who is doing what aspect of the research in real time. In other words, both groups would get credit for the research. Donna Blackmond, a Professor at The Scripps Research Institute, agreed that preprint servers could be beneficial in the sense of establishing the origin of the scientific finding. However, Professor Blackmond has concerns about who would get the bulk of the credit in the end: the research group who posted first, or the research group with better quality work?
One approach to ensure high-quality research is the establishment of an overlay journal, which serves as a mechanism for evaluation and/or review of open-access publications. Michael Shirts, a Professor at the University of Colorado, is assisting in the creation of an overlay journal for preprint servers that will provide peer review and advertising for the preprints posted to the server. This service would charge a small fee to discourage spam submissions. Another function of the overlay journal is to look at topics that should be updated regularly. Examples of this include review articles, best-practices guides, and computational papers.
Professor Blackmond said that she has found that the organic chemistry community and researchers who engage in mechanistic work are guarded against preprints. Alexander Spokoyny, a Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an experimental chemist, supported Professor Blackmond’s finding by explaining that those subfields are more skeptical because they have faster turnarounds and their research is at a greater risk of reproduction by competitors. Fields like materials science and chemical biology tend to be more receptive of preprints, as it takes longer to do this type of research. Regardless of the hesitations in some subfields, Professor Spokoyny feels that preprints are a very exciting addition to the research process from a philosophical perspective, as they will increase the amount of information that is freely accessible to the public and allow for research to be more transparent.
As discussed by Drs. Aspuru-Guzik, Schmid, and Berg, preprint servers are an integral part of the culture in some disciplines, such as physics, and are well on the path of adoption by the biology and engineering communities. The users of these preprint servers who participated in this symposium were very positive about the impacts of preprint servers in their communities. Based on the perspectives of several other speakers, it remains to be seen whether ChemRxiv, which began accepting preprint submissions just a few days before this symposium, will be widely adopted by the chemistry community. Dr. Henderson commented that the chemistry community is highly diverse, with many subfields, and it is expected that participation in ChemRxiv will not be uniform. She said ChemRxiv is intended to serve every community within the chemical enterprise, but it is ultimately up to the community itself to decide how they want to participate.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Symposium—in Brief was prepared by Jessica Wolfman and Nancy Huddleston, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, as a factual summary of what occurred at the meeting. The statements made are those of individual meeting participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the meeting participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Symposium—in Brief was reviewed by Donna G. Blackmond, The Scripps Research Institute; Samuel Gellman, University of Wisconsin; Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University; and Jake Yeston, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Chemical Sciences Roundtable Members: Jennifer Sinclair Curtis (Co-Chair), University of California, Davis; Mark E. Jones (Co-Chair), The Dow Chemical Company; Tina Bahadori, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Michael R. Berman, Air Force Office of Scientific Research; Donna G. Blackmond, The Scripps Research Institute; Emilio Bunel, Argonne National Laboratory; Allison Campbell, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Richard R. Cavanagh, National Institute of Standards and Technology; Michelle Chang, University of California, Berkeley; Miles Fabian, National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Michael J. Fuller, Chevron Energy Technology Company; Miguel Garcia-Garibay, University of California, Los Angeles; Bruce Garrett, U.S. Department of Energy; Malika Jeffries-El, Boston University; Jack Kaye, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Mary Kirchhoff, American Chemical Society; JoAnn Slama Lighty, National Science Foundation; Laurie Locascio, National Institute of Standards and Technology, David Myers, GCP Applied Technologies, Ashutosh Rao, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Angela Wilson, National Science Foundation.
Organizing Committee Members: Donna G. Blackmond, The Scripps Research Institute; Mary Kirchhoff, American Chemical Society; Darla Henderson, American Chemical Society.
SPONSORS: This activity was supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Energy.
For additional information regarding the workshop, visit http://nas-sites.org/csr/2017/12/04/chemrxiv-publishing-in-the-ageof-preprint-servers.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. ChemRvix: Publishing in the Age of Preprint Servers: Proceedings of a Symposium—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25050.
Division on Earth and Life Studies
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