A new National Institutes of Health policy encourages researchers to include in their grant proposals preprints, which are early, unedited versions of papers that later appear in journals like these.

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NIH enables investigators to include draft preprints in grant proposals

Researchers should feel free to include preprints, or draft manuscripts that haven’t yet been gone through peer review, as part of their applications when they seek funding from the Bethesda, Maryland–based National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency announced today.

“The NIH encourages investigators to use interim research products, such as preprints, to speed the dissemination and enhance the rigor of their work,” a notice says. They “can be cited anywhere other research products are cited” in a research proposal or progress report, it explains. Until now, preprints could only be listed in a certain part of a proposal, says Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research.

The announcement is a victory for biomedical researchers who have been championing preprints as a way to share findings more quickly than waiting for a paper to go through formal peer review and appear in a journal. “This is huge!” tweeted Jessica Polka, director of ASAPbio, a nonprofit group pushing for the use preprints in life sciences.

Although physicists have long shared their work as preprints, biologists have been slower to embrace them for various reasons—such as fear of being scooped by the competition and concerns about releasing medical findings that haven’t been vetted. Researchers have also worried that journals won’t accept manuscripts that are already public. But biology preprints are catching on, with proponents arguing that they will speed the dissemination of research, help researchers to get feedback on their work quickly, and allow young scientists to get credit for work that hasn’t yet been formally published.

NIH issued a request for comment on including preprints in grant proposals last fall that drew 351 comments, mostly supportive, Lauer says. However, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda had concerns. FASEB warned that reviewers would not realize these manuscripts had not gone through review, or if they did realize it, would feel obligated to review them, adding to their workload. FASEB’s position led to an uproar from some of the federation’s member societies and individuals who protested that FASEB didn’t represent their views.

Howard Garrison, director of public affairs for FASEB, says that at least NIH listened. “We did not get what we asked for, but we appreciate that NIH acknowledged many of our concerns,” Garrison says. He points out that the notice says reviewers will be given “explicit guidance reminding them” that preprints haven’t been peer reviewed and that NIH expects to monitor the impact of including preprints in proposals.

Until now, researchers could include preprints in their research plan but not other parts of their application, such as their biographical sketch, or in progress reports, NIH’s Lauer says. And even now, including preprints and other “interim products,” such as research protocols or datasets, is “an option,” he says, not a requirement.

The notice, which takes effect 25 May, includes other caveats: The agency “strongly encourages” grantees to deposit their preprints in repositories that are easy to search, for example. The repository should also have “policies about plagiarism, competing interests, misconduct and other hallmarks of reputable scholarly publishing are rigorous and transparent.” That is still a work in progress for some preprint archives, acknowledges NIH’s Neil Thakur, a special assistant to Lauer.

The agency also acknowledges that for some fields, such as clinical research where even peer reviewed research can be “hyped and misinterpreted by the media,” that posting preprints may come “more slowly” than for other disciplines. Lauer, a cardiologist, acknowledges that “we very much recognize that this is new territory” for clinicians.