Nobel Laureate Carol Greider published a "preprint" of her results on regulating telomere length on the site bioRxiv in February. (Visual by

Why Preprints in Physics, But Not Biology?

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 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.”