Francis Crick (left) was initially skeptical of the National Institutes of Health's 1960s preprint-sharing project, but later joined a preprint exchange group led by James Watson, with whom he discovered the structure of DNA. 

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

In a 'forgotten experiment,' biologists almost launched the preprint revolution—5 decades ago

As a growing number of biologists formally share their papers in online repositories before any peer review or journal publication, it’s often said that they are catching up with physicists, who have posted preprints in the online arXiv server since 1991. But biomedical scientists were actually first, reveals a researcher who has traced the "forgotten experiment" in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created a preprint exchange in the 1960s that publishers ultimately forced to close.

Matthew Cobb, a biologist and science historian at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, was browsing letters exchanged by biologists Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in the archives of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York when he came across a mention of the NIH project. I "pulled on the thread," he tells ScienceInsider, and learned that starting in 1961, a 70-year-old NIH administrator named Errett Albritton formed what he called Information Exchange Groups (IEGs), consisting of interested scientists working in the same subfield.

Participants sent draft manuscripts or other matters for consideration to NIH, which made copies of the documents and mailed them to the group, according to Cobb's own draft article, posted on 22 August in PeerJ Preprints. As with preprints today, the idea was to improve communication among scientists and relay findings months before they appeared in journals.

One of Albritton’s first steps was to reach out to Crick, who rejected a proposed IEG on DNA coding, Cobb recounts. “There is far too much careless and rapid communication already in every area of this field of study. The idea of increasing it even in this semi-public manner fills me with horror," Crick wrote back—even though he himself was part of the RNA Tie Club, an informal, small group of biologists studying nucleic acid structure who shared unpublished manuscripts. Despite his initial skepticism, Crick later joined an IEG on "Nucleic Acids and the Genetic Code" that was co-led by James Watson, with whom he had discovered DNA's structure.

Over 5 years, NIH formed seven exchange groups with a total of 3663 members from the United States and abroad who exchanged 2561 memos—more than half of them papers not yet peer reviewed by a journal. The papers were considered confidential, but could be referred to outside the group if the author gave permission.

The project didn’t last because of opposition from commercial and nonprofit journal publishers, Cobb writes. In 1966 the American Association of Immunologists called the IEGs "a real danger" to immunology journals that could "ultimately supersede them." Nature blasted the NIH exchanges and a similar effort proposed by physicists that eventually led to arXiv.

One Nature editorial decried preprints' "inaccessibility, impermanence, illiteracy, uneven equality, and lack of considered judgment" and said money spent on “Allbritton’s print shop” should be used to help commercial journals. Science, the publisher of ScienceInsider, was also opposed: Then-editor Philip Abelson called the IEG memos "government-subsidized shoddy merchandise."

The final blow came in late 1966, when 13 biochemistry journals barred submissions of papers that had been shared as IEG memos. NIH announced it would soon close the IEGs, noting costs had become more than agency could cover (10 cents to 50 cents per copy of a memo, or a projected $400,000 in 1967, which is about $3 million in today’s dollars). University of Wisconsin in Madison biochemist David Green, who chaired the first IEG, later decried the "strangulation" of "one of the most revolutionary innovations in the history of science communication," Cobb's article recounts.

Many years later in 1999, cancer biologist Harold Varmus, then NIH’s director, proposed an NIH-sponsored preprint server called E-biomed; again, publishers shot down the idea.

But the industry’s views have seemingly changed since PeerJ Preprints and a CSHL-sponsored preprint server, bioRxiv, both arose in 2013: "[T]here has not been the kind of hostility that appeared in the 1960s and 1990s," Cobb writes. He suggests that is in part because of the push for making data and ideas freely available through venues such as open-access journals, which make articles immediately free online: "One explanation might be that ... opposing preprints just looks churlish in the age of the Internet."