Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023
Open access to +1.1 million articles, nbd.

Open access to +1.1 million articles, nbd.

Most of you have probably already heard of In short, every article I report on is likely to be on the arXiv in some form, as the site contains concept manuscripts in the fields of physics and astronomy. Many of them eventually appear in scientific journals, but some will spend their entire existence in the arXiv.

Five years ago I assumed that every field had its own equivalent of arXiv. So imagine my surprise when I tried to upload my first chemistry paper to the chemistry equivalent. Apparently there was one, but publisher Elsevier eventually took control of it and started requiring registration. The site is now probably a wasteland.

Until recently, biology hadn’t even managed to create anything that Elsevier would want to acquire. But now biologists are finally getting on the pre-print train with a bioRXiv.

This move met with… mixed feelings. For reasons that are not clear to me, I follow many people in the biomedical and bioindustry on Twitter, and I am quite baffled by their reactions to bioRxiv. From an outsider’s perspective, it clearly seems like a good thing, but not everyone reacts as such.

The growth of the arXiv

I think the process by which the bioRxiv was introduced is causing the problems. In physics, there was no real push to use the arXiv. Initially it was a simple email list. As it expanded, it became a repository. It was originally set up to serve the small group in the field of theoretical physics (mostly astronomy as far as I know). But sharing papers just made sense: Journals took a long time to get published, so eventually researchers emailed preprints to all their friends.

From these small beginnings, the arXiv has grown into all of physics. Now about 20-30 articles have been added in the optics section alone every day. Some papers don’t even get any further. They accumulate reputation and importance while on the arXiv “unpublished”. I used to have a problem with that, but not anymore.

At this point you put your design on the arXiv First is supported by many journals, to the extent that submitting to one of the American Physical Society journals is a lot easier if you’ve already put your paper on the arXiv. Even better for some communities, arXiv is used as a pre-submission peer review. You put your paper on the arXiv and let your colleagues know. Anyone interested in the newspaper can read it and comment on it.

This set-up effectively shortens the peer review process. After about a week, you submit it to a journal and the editor sends it off for a more organized peer review process. For areas like cosmology or particle physics, your colleagues have probably already read it and let you know what they think; the magazine only formalizes the process. But the informal peer review can have an advantage because it is more likely to be done by people who care about the content of the article.

There is another way of looking at the effect of this informal peer review. ArXiv papers start without any reputation, which is different from an article being published Physical assessment letters. By virtue of the name of the magazine, the work starts with a better reputation than the same work published in eg Optical letters. The situation is true, even if the content is exactly the same: the publisher makes the difference.

But if the manuscript is never published, the notoriety it gets is purely due to its content. Any newspaper that gains a major reputation on the arXiv has done so because it’s really important (or in some cases really infamous).

Cultural clash

This arrangement threatens some scientists. Their reputation and identity are firmly anchored to the mast of certain magazines. Over the years they have acquired the skills and techniques necessary to ensure that much of their work appears in these magazines. Unfortunately, these skills and techniques overlap with, but do not include, the skills needed to do great science. Such a change in the playing field would take away one of their defining advantages as scientists.

For physics, this process has already begun. Although publication in magazines is still dominant and necessary, the arXiv is changing that landscape. However, biologists do not yet have this tradition.

That’s not to say that biologists are particularly sensitive to reputation. Frankly, if the arXiv had been introduced to the field of physics in its current form when it started, similar concerns would have surfaced. Remember, arXiv started as a way to share papers before publication, and it was never intended to replace (or even streamline) publishing. Many would argue that it’s still not meant to replace publication, but I think that ship is getting ready to raise the gangway.

I suspect theft and priority are some additional fears for those concerned about these sites. I put my paper on the arXiv and then submit it to a journal. A rival submits the same work directly to a magazine. Who has priority?

Given some of the behavior we’ve already seen in scientists, you know it will: Someone with the ethical sense of a dead fish will start towing the arXiv for work yet to be published. They will change the names and affiliations of the authors and submit directly to a journal.

In physics, because the arXiv came from a small community, this fear was small. From there, the arXiv grew into new areas of physics, requiring some significant changes. Now at least the submitting author must be registered. And the arXiv can flag suspicious activity and require those authors to be endorsed by someone the arXiv trusts. It also has an army of volunteers who scan all submitted papers and can reject or reclassify papers. This combination significantly reduces the risk of theft.

Unfortunately, that culture and infrastructure does not yet exist at the bioRXiv. Nor is this a case of something emerging from a small, single field – it’s being unleashed on the world’s largest research community. BioRXiv’s culture will be defined by its users and abusers for years to come. The cynics among us believe that the abusers will win.

But mostly I think the cynics and the skeptics are wrong. Biology is not so different that biorXiv is doomed to fail. I know it’s a scary new world for biologists and they might get a few scrapes. However, it is also ripe for opportunity. Stop worrying and start sharing.

By akfire1

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