In late 2013, a new website sponsored by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York state set out to shake up the culture of the life sciences. BioRxiv’s creators wanted to persuade biologists to follow the lead of most physicists and share their raw manuscripts on a free online archive before sending them to a peer-reviewed journal.
Twelve months later, bioRxiv’s leaders say they’re off to a healthy start. Their preprint server has attracted a modest but growing stream of papers, now totaling more than 800 (see graph). About 28% of authors, who come from 44 countries, have revised their papers, presumably after getting feedback from readers, says John Inglis, executive director of CSHL Press. And submissions span 25 disciplines, including many—such as cell biology, cancer research, and neuroscience—in which preprint sharing hadn’t been routine.
For scientists who might worry that posting a preprint will jeopardize its chances at a journal, Inglis points out that one-fourth of bioRxiv’s papers have later appeared in scores of journals, including the most selective. In another sign of progress, he adds, this month the Genetics Society of America will launch a portal that will allow authors to deposit a manuscript in bioRxiv at the same time that it is submitted to one of the society’s journals, Genetics and G3. “We hope other publishers will follow suit,” Inglis says.
Inglis and bioRxiv co-leader Richard Sever recently discussed what they have learned with ScienceInsider. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How is bioRxiv going?
J.I.: It is going really, extraordinarily well from several points of view. The volume of submissions has been very significant. These preprints are coming from parts of biology that have not traditionally been familiar with using preprints. A large proportion of these manuscripts have been revised, which again is behaviorally something different for life scientists.
Finally, the quality of the science that is being presented in these preprints is really remarkably high. Roughly 25% [have] been published in a whole array of journals.
R.S.: We’ve also had a very positive reaction from many journals that in the past have not had policies regarding preprints. Since bioRxiv launched, many journals have come out and said: “Yes, we don’t consider a preprint prior publication. We welcome papers that have been posted on bioRxiv.”
Q: One of your goals is to allow researchers to put their work out there and get feedback, right?
J.I.: Yes. Although we have onsite commenting for every paper, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of it. But what has been quite remarkable is the extent of the social media commentary on the posted preprints. And posting also has the effect of prompting feedback to authors directly through private e-mail. So anecdotally, we feel that papers are being improved by their exposure on bioRxiv.
Q: But in the larger scheme of things, 80 papers a month is not a lot, is it?
J.I.: Obviously, if you look at papers published in PubMed it might be 30,000 a month or something like that. But there are plenty of people who a year ago were quite willing to tell me this was not a good idea and it wouldn’t work. And they pointed to previous efforts to do that in biology that had clearly not worked at all. I think this is clearly different.
R.S.: Some people said this would be a dumping ground. And if you look at the quality of the journals, 95 journals now have papers that were up as preprints. That includes Science, Nature, Nature Neuroscience, and eLife. What we’ve been lacking in relative quantity is definitely there in relative quality.
Q: What is your vision for bioRxiv 5 years from now?
J.I.: We certainly see enormous capacity for growth. This is around for keeps. It’s not a product, it’s not a business. It’s a service that a laboratory has invested itself in … not just financially, but with a commitment from the laboratory that it is a good thing for science. So we are in it for the long haul and we’d be very delighted if it keeps growing.