Preprints Perspectives: A Panel Discussion Recap [with video recording]

On October 23rd, Jefferson Libraries sponsored a panel discussion in celebration of Open Access Week moderated by Larissa Gordon, Scholarly Communications Librarian. The panel, Preprints Perspectives, was on the topic of preprints, and, in brief, a preprint is an early version of an academic article that has been made available for free online before it has been peer-reviewed or published. Preprints are designed to speed up access to scientific communication, as the process of formally publishing a journal article can take many months. According to Tim Mosca, Ph.D., preprints, “let discourse flow….more freely, and also a little bit closer to real-time, which is exactly what we want for science.”   

Dr. Mosca, principal investigator of The Mosca Lab at Thomas Jefferson University, was one of four panelists who answered questions and shared their perspectives about preprints during the talk on Friday. He started his comments by highlighting the benefits of posting preprints, reminding the audience that, “behind every paper is a student, or a trainee, or a postdoctoral fellow that needs to graduate, that needs a job.” Publishing a preprint can go a long way towards helping them on that journey. Speaking more specifically about the effect that publishing preprints has had on his own work, Dr. Mosca emphasized their importance because they help, “get scientific work out into the community so that people can see what labs are doing,” and so that a lab can “prove” itself to funders. “Now that places like….the NIH are starting to accept preprints as evidence of progress, this is really helping” labs as they apply for grants.

“As a new lab,” noted Dr. Mosca, “the fact that we could have a preprint on our very first RO1 application…I think went a long way to convincing the study section…that this is a lab that can actually do science and can put pen to paper where necessary.”  

Dr. Mosca was joined on the panel by three other speakers. First, was fellow Jeffersonian Heather Rose, Ph.D., JD, Vice President of Technology Licensing and Startups, from the university’s Innovation Pillar, who emphasized that preprints were not worrisome from an intellectual property standpoint, as “academic researchers have always had an obligation to share work beyond their laboratories.” Publishing preprints is just one more part of that process and it does not need to be a barrier to obtaining a patent if researchers remember to get in touch with her office early on in their process.  

Mosca and Dr. Rose were joined by two guests from outside the university, John Inglis, Ph.D., co-founder of the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers, and Itratxe Puebla, an Associate Director with ASAPbio, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “promoting innovation and transparency in life sciences communications.” These speakers emphasized that preprints played an important part in both the research and education processes. First, preprints are an important part of the “grey literature” that is expected to be included in any comprehensive systematic review search. Preprint articles also make for excellent publications for students, and especially student journal clubs, to read and practice with as they learn more about evaluating academic articles and the scientific peer-review process. Ms. Puebla also reminded the audience that faculty and librarians who support the growth of preprints should also advocate for their inclusion at the university level in promotion and tenure documents. With the publication of The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), in 2012, the academic community has come to recognize the limits of traditional journal-level metrics, such as the Journal Impact Factor, and the importance of recognizing a variety of research outputs, which could include preprints. 

Towards the end of the panel discussion, the role of preprints in the Covid-19 pandemic became a topic for conversation. Dr. Inglis stated that “when you have a pressing need for the immediate sharing of new research, a preprint is an immensely valuable tool…however, it can still be a challenge for all of us to figure out how to get this across to the public without destroying public trust in science.” During the pandemic, the “media have had to come to terms…with what biomedical preprints actually mean, and what they don’t mean,” and organizations like ASAPbio and others are currently “working with journalists to try to develop some thoughts about best practices when it comes to reporting new results.” The image of the “brilliant individualist making white coated late night eureka moments in the lab is very highly embedded in our culture, and we have to try to alter that,” into a truer understanding of science as an ongoing community-based process.  

You can watch the full presentation on the Jefferson Digital Commons. For more background information about preprints and their role in scholarly publishing, please check out Scott Memorial Library’s guide to preprints