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Issues across Science, Journalism and Media: Should journalists write about preprints?

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Summary

Preprints level the playing field for scientists from the developing world. They may simply be the most innovative method we know of that enables such access to the best of science from all round the world.

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A workshop on “Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India”,  was held recently at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, across August 20th and 21st, 2018.   Video recordings of the workshop proceedings are publicly accessible and  linked at:https://www.imsc.res.in/~scimedia/

While the workshop itself covered many topics, a number of questions were asked during the discussions that could not be addressed in sufficient detail at the time. Some of these were later debated extensively on social media.

I’d like to provide a personal perspective on these questions. My hope is that they might add a measure of clarity, both for fellow scientists as well as science journalists. I will emphasize grey areas wherever I can. There is no “right “ approach to these issues. I hope that by providing my own views, explaining them, and showing where opinions might legitimately differ between scientists or between scientists and journalists, an in-depth  discussion can be initiated.

A number of follow-up pieces are planned, each covering one such question.

 

 

Prasad Ravindranath of the Hindu raised the question of whether science journalists  should write on archived pre-prints. He had received some flak for his choice to do so in one case.

My view, as a scientist, is the following. By posting my submitted/to-be-submitted paper on a public archive I submit my work to the scrutiny of a far larger number of scientists in my area than will actually encounter the same paper by turning the pages of a journal or even accessing the journal online.

My name on the paper in preprint form counts, for me, as much or perhaps even more, as seeing its final version in print.

My reputation as a scientist is on the line when I post my work on accepted and popular preprint archiving forums, such as the condensed matter preprint archive (condmat) or the biology preprint archive (bioarxiv) or a host of others as well, some more popular in their respective communities than those I have mentioned. Its the implicit understanding of those who read my preprint that it represents work which I am prepared to defend professionally.

My own memory of when I first understood the importance of archived preprints is an early one, of seeing TIFR graduate students in string theory, anxiously checking to see if anyone, anywhere in the world, might be working on projects related to theirs. There is also a later memory, of seeing similar graduate students in a western country, dashing to their computer terminals in time for the morning posting of the previous days condensed matter preprint submissions, to identify the latest advances in their field as well as to see if their PhD project had been scooped. Different countries, similar worries.

These students knew that others in their field took preprints seriously. Even now for me, as for many other scientists, checking the preprint archive is a daily ritual.

A  paper submitted to a journal might be revised before publication, one or more times,  depending on input from those who review it. Referees usually have independent and often valuable comments on submitted manuscripts.  These are reflected in each rewriting of the paper as it proceeds to acceptance at a journal, or is resubmitted to another journal. However, referees are not infallible and referee comments are occasionally thinly disguised versions of “Refer to my own papers, list provided below, or else …”. The changes a referee might require are often cosmetic.

As an author of a preprint, I am encouraged to submit a newer version to an archive when the manuscript is updated with the journal, especially if I feel that the changes are substantial enough. All current archives keep older versions of preprints intact and accessible, so that any reader can choose to compare older and more recent versions to check for consistency. Even if a paper is withdrawn or otherwise retracted, the archived record remains. This maintains both the historical record as well as provides a disincentive against uploading research of questionable quality.

In biology, in particular, but also in parts of the social sciences, the gap between initial submission and final journal publication can be large. To postpone the viewing and discussion of a paper till it appears in a journal, thus denying access to it altogether to those not in a position to attend the scientific conferences where it might be discussed, is a formidable and ultimately exclusionary barrier to scientific progress.

The culture of preprints is very strong in mathematics, in theoretical physics and in computer science. It is gaining strength in biology. Chemists have been slow to catch up.

Interestingly, in mathematics, Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture remains in preprint form. The proof of this conjecture qualified Perelman for the Clay Millennium Prize of 1 million dollars. (Very unusually, Perelman declined this award, as also the award of a Fields medal, the highest award in Mathematics.) It’s interesting to note that these awards were solely based on the recognition by fellow mathematicians that Perelman has solved the outstanding problem in his field, even though his papers had undergone no formal journal peer review.

A grey area is whether one should consider preprints towards promotions and related scientific advancement. The interests of large commercial publishers are not always in tune with a culture of preprints. By allowing authors to share their work and permit commentary in advance of publication, such publishers feel that their primacy is being usurped. My own view is that it would be in their own interest to get on board with this as soon as possible, since they risk being left behind by the ultimately inexorable advance towards a more open and egalitarian scientific culture.

Finally, and I cannot emphasise this enough, preprints level the playing field for scientists from the developing world. They may simply be the most innovative method we know of that enables such access to the best of science from all round the world.

So my answer would be: Preprints are absolutely fair game for science journalists!

 

Gautam Menon is a Professor at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He can be reached at menon@imsc.res.in

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