Early findings from across the geosciences will soon have not one, but two online servers ready to post preprints.

NASA

Dueling preprint servers coming for the geosciences

Are climate scientists ready to air preliminary findings—mistakes and all—before their papers are reviewed?

That question will soon be put to the test. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C., the giant of earth and planetary science publishing, announced plans yesterday to launch a preprint server that—much like arXiv.org and its descendants, bioRxiv and ChemRxiv—would host studies prior to peer review. The site, called the Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr), should open early next year, with a demo at the AGU's fall meeting in December.

ESSOAr will have company. In a separate initiative, a grassroots group of scientists will start, as soon as next month, EarthArXiv. That preprint site would be powered by the Center for Open Science, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville, Virginia, that has provided similar support for several nascent servers, including SocArXiv and engrXiv. Though AGU's effort is partially funded by Wiley, a for-profit publisher, and built on their software, EarthArXiv would remain independent, says Thomas Narock, a data scientist at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, who is helping to lead the effort.

“We favor a completely open approach independent of any publishers,” Narock says. “We would like a community-led, transparent, and open-source effort. The AGU approach is a collaboration with a major publisher and is built on top of proprietary software.” That could bring complications down the line, Narock says, if, for example, their servers add the option for researchers to route their preprint studies as submissions to various journals for publication. The question, he says, is whether AGU and Wiley would allow submissions to journals that neither publishes.

ESSOAr will have an open programming interface, allowing outside developers to add function to it, says Brooks Hanson, AGU’s senior vice president of publications. (It’s plausible such an extension could include outside journal submissions.) Wiley is also well-versed in managing conflicting roles, Hanson says. He notes that Atypon, a Wiley subsidiary that will furnish the software for ESSOAr, also provides the backend for the journal Cell, which is owned by Wiley's rival, Elsevier. Likewise, this isn't the first time that for-profit publishers have gotten involved in the preprint game: Last year, Elsevier bought SSRN, a social sciences preprint server, for example. 

It remains to be seen whether researchers working in more sensitive areas of the geosciences, such as climate science, will embrace posting their work prior to peer review. But some space scientists have long made use of arXiv, and a subset of the earth scientists who published in the journals of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) have already become accustomed to such openness, as EGU has posted studies online prior to review for more than 15 years, says Ulrich Pöschl, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, who helped found the journals. “I had suggested and recommended such a move [for] many years to colleagues and representatives of AGU,” he says.

At times, the EGU journals have led to confusion among reporters unused to preprints in the geosciences. For example, a prereview study by James Hansen, the former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that warned of catastrophic sea level rise garnered wide coverage in July 2015, but most news reports glossed over or elided its preliminary status. The paper underwent substantial revisions before being accepted for publication in February 2016. For that reason, it will be important for scientists to make clear to the press and public the preliminary status of research found on ESSOAr or EarthArXiv, Hanson says. But this is a manageable risk, he says. “ArXiv.org has dealt with ‘Einstein is wrong’ papers for a while.”

The most original part of AGU's preprint service is that it will look to provide a permanent home for meeting posters, and not just their abstracts, Hanson says. At AGU's fall meeting, for example, there might be 17,000 posters, and much of that work gets lost after the meeting, hung in a hallway or tossed in the trash. ESSOAr will host such posters, building on AGU's initial experiments into digital posters.

Though leaders behind the two preprint efforts are in talks about standards for prescreening papers and ways of collaborating, right now the plan for EarthArXiv is to continue forward independently. “This doesn’t change our plans,” Narock says. Their effort could face long odds, as the AGU has an advisory board filled with fellow scientific societies, including the Geological Society of America and the Japan Geoscience Union.

A little competition isn't so bad, Hanson insists. It could lead to more buy-in from researchers, and experimentation on what works is important. “There's initiative and energy around this,” he says. “I think all of that is good.”

*Correction: 25 September, 9:55 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated that ChemRxiv is run on Highwire software; in fact, it is BioRxiv that runs on Highwire. Also, the story stated that ESSOAr could be ready by December; in fact, only a demo will be ready by then.