I’m in graduate school to learn, and preprints—draft versions of journal articles that are shared prior to peer review—offer a great opportunity to do just that. Here’s how preprints help young researchers grow in ways traditional types of scientific communication don’t.
THEY SAVE TIME
The first few months of a graduate program are typically spent scouring the available literature with the intention of planning out the next few years of your life. That’s when you learn the methods and practices that will shape the rest of your research trajectory. If someone somewhere has designed a fantastic new method you could use, you can only hope it’s already made it through peer review. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to learn about it in time—unless it’s been published as a preprint. The thing is, researchers in biomedical science wait an average of eight months after submitting their article to a journal for it to be published. Eight months is a very long time for a graduate student who wants to eventually, you know, graduate.
As I started graduate school, I was lucky to come across a preprint that helped me circumnavigate a potential problem, saving me time down the line. It describes a novel single cell sequencing method that allows you to work with small cell populations in fixed tissue samples. It was circulated in October 2017—but has yet to be published in a journal.
THEY BRING THE DISCUSSION ONLINE
Talking about my research with my labmates made me realize that science isn’t as straight forward as I thought it would be. They challenge my ideas and I challenge theirs. As uncomfortable as that may be, it makes my research better.
Because preprints are put on the Web immediately, they do a great job of taking scientific discussions like ours online, for everyone to read. One of the best (and most entertaining) scientific discussions I have ever seen came in a series of preprints. It started when a group of researchers published an article that claimed to be able to predict characteristics like age, height, weight and skin color based on a person’s genetic code. Another researcher responded with a preprint stating that the published article did “not really identify anyone,” and that a much simpler prediction procedure using basic demographic information worked equally well. So the original authors, who said they “definitely welcome a constructive debate,” defended their work in yet another preprint. The preprint format brought a conversation that would have otherwise been hidden away in a private e-mail exchange out into the open for everyone, including graduate students, to read.
THEY LET RESEARCHERS SHARE NEGATIVE RESULTS
Once you start doing your own experiments, you realize that most of them don’t work. I wish more people would write about these failures, to guide future scientists like me away from potential pitfalls and dead-ends. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to publish negative results in a traditional journal.
Luckily, there’s no editor scrutinizing preprints and deciding what can and cannot be published. That’s why preprints make sharing negative results easy. If a scientist deems their negative results to be of value, they can publish them. Because of negative results being shared early in preprints like this one, which discusses irregularities with certain mouse strains, researchers using those strains know to interpret their data with caution.
THEY FOSTER A MORE OPEN RESEARCH CULTURE
Preprints are more than just a contradiction in terms (they aren’t all necessarily destined to be “printed” in a journal) and a faster way to publish. They foster the kind of open research culture that I want to work in. Preprints make both the end result and the process itself open and free to read. I made my first contribution to this culture in October, 2017 with this preprint, which was finally published in a journal in February, 2018.
I’m excited about the future and hope to make many more contributions throughout my career. Feel free to follow my progress here.