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SFARI supports preprints for the life sciences

John Spiro
20 May 2016

Koltukov Oleksandr/Shutterstock.com

The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) recently made two important changes that we hope will help to accelerate the pace of autism research. First, we changed our grant award letter to strongly encourage all SFARI Investigators to post preprints on recognized servers in parallel with (or even before) submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Second, our biosketch form was updated to include space for SFARI grant applicants to list manuscripts deposited in preprint servers; we and our outside peer reviewers will take these manuscripts into consideration when making funding decisions.

There are many reasons to be enthusiastic about preprints. A commentary published today in Science summarizes the perspectives of scientists, funders and publishers that resulted from a productive meeting in February called Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio).

Highest on SFARI’s list is the potential for getting results (including ‘negative’ results) out to the research community without the significant delay that almost always comes with publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. It is all too common that SFARI receives applications for a project (using a mouse model, for example) in which we know unpublished data from another grantee’s progress report would be highly informative for the applicant. But we also know that the manuscript describing the results is working its way through the long publishing pipeline — or, in the case of ‘negative’ data, may never actually see the light of day — and thus, the timely exchange of information doesn’t happen. If biologists were to use preprints in the way that physicists and mathematicians have used arXiv (a preprint server that has been active for more than 25 years and is supported by the Simons Foundation and other member institutions), we believe the dissemination of knowledge would happen more quickly and efficiently. This is always important, and even more so in a field in which scientists often interact directly with affected families, adding a particular sense of urgency.

Many biologists are initially skeptical about preprints: They worry about getting scooped, the potential for flooding the literature with low-quality data, and whether using preprints will prevent them from subsequently publishing in peer-reviewed journals. They also often speculate that the math and physics communities are fundamentally different from biological sciences in ways that might make preprints less successful in biology.

These are potentially important issues, and all (plus others) were addressed in detail at the meeting and are covered in the Science commentary. I won’t address them again here, but SFARI sees this experiment with preprints as an important step forward — and we will be monitoring its effects carefully.

On a final note, it is heartening to see that many life science researchers — including SFARI Investigators — have already posted manuscripts to preprint servers ahead of publication.  We encourage all researchers to take a look at manuscripts that are available (at bioRxiv, for example) and to consider providing feedback on the work.  Your next breakthrough idea (or grant application) may be inspired by new research findings that you discover there.