ASAPbio: fostering preprints and community engagement for positive change in science communication

Iratxe Puebla, from ASAPbio, explains the benefits of preprints and introduces resources and initiatives – such as the Preprint Reviewer Recruitment Network – that the organization offers researchers interested in sharing and reviewing preprints.

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Science communication has experienced many changes over the last decades, a particularly notable one being the transition from print to digital. But there is one aspect that has remained largely unchanged: publishing a paper still takes as long as ever, if not longer. In an age with improved scientific methodologies and a variety of online tools at our disposal, how can this be? The answer lies not with technology but rather with the expectations for what constitutes a publishable unit: publishing in a journal requires an ever-increasing amount of data per article, meaning that obtaining the first publication as a first author can take a year longer than it did 30 years ago [1].

This delay in communication hinders scientific progress, and in 2016 ASAPbio was created with a mission to tackle this and drive innovation and transparency in science communication. We believe that the pace of scientific discovery will accelerate if we can put the latest research findings in front of the scientific community faster, and if we bring in new ways to share, access and engage with research works. That sounds cool, you may think, but how do we do it? This is where preprints come into play.

Speed and control

ASAPbio supports the productive use of preprints for research dissemination. While for some preprints may sound like a relatively new phenomenon, the first experiments to facilitate early sharing of research works among scientists go back to the 1960s (in the form of the Information Exchange Groups coordinated by the NIH (US) [2]), and researchers in physics and social sciences have been sharing early papers with their colleagues via preprint servers for decades. Biologists can reap the same benefits that preprints have afforded those communities: preprints allow scientists to keep control of when and in what format their work is ready to be shared with the community. While preprints are not peer-reviewed prior to appearing at the server, they are publicly and permanently available, and this allows others to provide feedback and start building on the work, before or in parallel to the manuscript undergoing the review process at a journal. A large majority of journals in biology and medicine accept preprints, and thus scientists can preprint their work and still pursue a journal publication. In fact, several preprint servers and journals now have processes to allow researchers to submit their preprint to a journal, and vice versa.

The value of prompt dissemination via preprints was thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers recognized the need to share data with the community as rapidly as possible and made wide use of preprints to communicate their latest findings [3]. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 50,000 COVID-19-related preprints have been posted [4], and many of the breakthroughs in the response to the pandemic, such as those related to vaccine development or potential treatments, appeared first in preprint form. The pandemic is not the only challenge we are facing, and the use of preprints can also catalyze progress in response to other important areas such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, global health and climate change.

Community focus

It is important for scientists to feel empowered when deciding how to communicate their work. In order to help researchers make informed decisions about preprints, we collate information and resources in our Preprint resource center, which includes a comprehensive preprint FAQ (also available in Spanish, French and Chinese), infographics, training materials and information about preprint servers as well as funder and journal policies. We also aim to foster discussion and guidance about important issues related to preprints. A couple of our recent projects involved developing recommendations for best practices for posting and linking of preprints in the life sciences [5] and guiding principles for the communication in the media of research shared via preprints.

ASAPbio is a biologist-driven organization and our projects and outreach about preprints could not happen without the support of the ASAPbio Community [6]. Our community involves a diverse and global group of researchers and others in science communication with an interest in preprints. Our community members provide input and feedback on ongoing initiatives, raise awareness about preprints and have opportunities to learn more about preprints and develop their networks via our Fellows program and Community calls.

Driving innovation in science communication

The value of preprints does not only lie in the speed of dissemination, they also make it possible to explore new paths for innovation in science communication. In the coming years, we hope to drive further engagement with preprints in a couple of areas. The first relates to review activities around preprints, which allow broader diversity and participation in peer review and exploration of new review models beyond the traditional journal review system. One of our existing initiatives is the Preprint Reviewer Recruitment Network, which enables researchers to share their public preprint feedback as work samples for journals to consider them for inclusion in their reviewer pool or editorial board. We are delighted to have the FEBS journals as part of the group of 47 participating journals, and hope that the network will serve both as an incentive for participation in preprint review, and as an avenue for journals to increase diversity in their reviewer and editorial boards.

Our second aim is to support sharing of research outputs beyond the scope and format of a traditional article. As discussed above, some of the current constraints in the communication process relate to the expectations imposed by a journal article; in the preprint space, those constraints are removed, allowing papers to be shared at an earlier stage in the research process before they take the shape of the eventual journal article, as well as the communication of contributions that are currently tricky to publish at journals, such as negative results and replications or refutations of earlier work. We view this as an important step in firmly placing the control of dissemination in the hands of researchers.

We will continue to shape our work in supporting preprints with input from our community and invite interested researchers to sign up for the ASAPbio Community; we will share more on our work and actively ask for feedback from our community members as we move forward. Join the growing preprint community and be part of positive change in science communication. 

Iratxe Puebla is an employee of ASAPbio, a non-profit organization promoting the productive use of preprints in the life sciences.

References

  1. Vale RD (2015). Accelerating scientific publication– in biology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (44) 13439-13446. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511912112
  2. Cobb M (2017) The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s. PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003995. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995 
  3. Fraser N et al. (2021) The evolving role of preprints in the dissemination of COVID-19 research and their impact on the science communication landscape. PLoS Biol 19(4): e3000959. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000959
  4. Dimensions database: https://app.dimensions.ai/discover/publication 
  5. Beck J et al. (2020). Building trust in preprints: recommendations for servers and other stakeholders. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/8dn4w 
  6. Woodley, Lou, Pratt, Katie, Kobilka, Sara, & Puebla, Iratxe. (2021). CSCCE Community Profile: ASAPbio Community. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4959985 

Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash 

Iratxe Puebla

Associate Director, ASAPbio