Why Preprints in Physics, But Not Biology?

Scientific journal policies, along with differences in the history and culture of the disciplines, may play a role.

In a piece published in the New York Times last month, Amy Harmon wrote about “rogue” biologists publishing their research directly to the Web. But as Harmon noted, this kind of activity is hardly news for physicists, who have been publishing these so-called “preprints” — that is, research published digitally, prior to appearing in a formal, peer-reviewed journal — on the website arXiv.org since 1991.

In February, Nobel Laureate Carol W. Greider published a report of her recent work on the site bioRxiv before submitting it to a journal for review. (Visual by US Embassy Sweden/Flickr)

In February, Nobel Laureate Carol W. Greider published a report of recent work on bioRxiv before submitting it to a journal for review. (Visual by US Embassy Sweden/Flickr)

There are many theories as to why the two fields differ, and the question isn’t just a matter of curiosity. Advocates of preprints, after all, argue that such fast and open dissemination of research speeds up scientific progress and allows for wider access to knowledge.

Scientific journal guidelines may be partly responsible. “Journal policies certainly scare biologists,” said Philippe Desjardins-Proulx, a computational biologist and author of the article “The Case For Open Preprints in Biology.”

A preprint is not meant to be the end of the road. Most scientists want to publish their research in a traditional, peer-reviewed journal as well — indeed, they need to in order to stay afloat in their careers. And by now, many of the top journal publishers in biology do specifically allow preprints, including Nature, Science, PLOS, PNAS, Elsevier, and Springer.

But some journals still don’t accept research that has been previously published as a preprint. Others have policies that remain unclear. 

“I would love to see journals endorse a statement similar to this one [on the website ASAPbio], stating that they will not discriminate against manuscripts that have been released as preprints,” Jessica Polka, a synthetic biologist, wrote in an email. She helped organize the ASAPbio meeting in February to discuss the use of preprints in biology.

But even if the idea of preprints is gaining ground, a lack of tradition and culture within the life sciences might well be standing in the way. “Currently, one of the biggest barriers is the fear that other scientists won’t respect the preprint as a valid form of scientific communication,” Polka said.

She also noted that the online arXiv for physics papers started in 1991, before any of the established print journals had an online presence. “I think having this period of a ‘digital monopoly’ probably helped arXiv take hold.”

Desjardins-Proulx agreed. ArXiv “was built by physicists using the TeX typesetting system, which is mostly used for its ability to write complex mathematical formulas,” he wrote in an email. “I’m using TeX, but very few biologists do, so it’s not surprising that physicists and mathematicians built a tradition around preprints while biologists didn’t.”

And yet, culture can change. Paul Ginsparg, a physicist and founder of arXiv, pointed out that the deep-learning research community only recently adopted preprints, and that “once a few primary practitioners started promoting [preprints], the community quickly achieved critical mass.”

Needhi Bhalla, a biologist who attended the ASAPbio meeting in February, wrote in an article that she was hopeful about the use of preprints, but still had concerns about how they would be viewed by other members of the research community. “I think there need to be more conversations among scientists,” Bhalla wrote in an email message, “about the advantages preprints confer to the scientific enterprise.”

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4 comments / Join the Discussion

    Echoing what Dan Riley said, online distribution did not create this culture in physics. When I was in graduate student in condensed-matter physics in the early 1980s, it was customary to send paper preprints to fifty or so of the important people in the field. This was done at about the time the manuscript was submitted to a journal. The online preprint servers just made this existing process easier. More importantly, online access democratized the process by opening distribution to everyone in the field, even an unknown researcher in the third world.
    I would be curious if biologists did something similar in those days.

    The sizes of the respective communities is orders of magnitude larger for biology than physics. Inhabitants of small villages communicate with each other much more frequently and readily than big city dwellers, and this inherent characteristic of human beings is most likely one of the reasons for the difference in acceptance of the preprint culture in physics versus biology. To put this in another way, one of my senior colleagues in the life sciences once told me that if he tried to read every paper published in his field he would not have time to eat, sleep or go to the toilet. With this level of overload of published peer-reviewed papers, there is a very strong incentive to avoid unfiltered and un-vetted publications such as those posted on preprint servers.

    High-energy physics had a preprint culture for decades before 1991, with labs mailing other labs paper copies (preprints) of papers submitted for publication. Every major high-energy physics lab had a preprint library, and the associated printing and mailing costs. The web was developed at CERN partly to make that existing preprint distribution system more efficient, so it is no surprise that arxiv.org was established so early (at a time when most commercial publishers couldn’t have been on the internet due to the NSFNET AUP limitations on commercial use). Once arxiv took off, it spread to closely related fields first.

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