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BioRxiv preprint server gets funding from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

BioRxiv, the free online archive of draft biology papers, is getting a major funding boost. Today, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) announced that it is putting an undisclosed amount of money into expanding the preprint server and adding more software tools through a collaboration with bioRxiv’s founder, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York.

“Expanded access to these drafts can dramatically accelerate the pace of discovery, and, in turn, our understanding of health and disease,” wrote neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, president of Science for CZI in Palo Alto, California, in a Facebook post. The news may generate some confusion among researchers and other proponents of preprints, however, because it comes as a nonprofit group is soliciting bids to create a central life sciences preprint server with similar objectives.

Preprints are scientific manuscripts that haven’t yet gone through peer review and been published in a journal. Unlike physical scientists, who have posted preprints at a site called arXiv for 25 years, biologists have been slow to share their unreviewed papers. But the idea has gained momentum since bioRxiv was launched 3 years ago by CSHL. It is now the fastest-growing biology preprint server, adding 800 papers each month to its current total of about 10,000 papers.

BioRxiv remains a small operation, with five part-time staff who piggyback on their regular jobs at CSHL and funding from CSHL and another donor, says Co-Founder John Inglis of CSHL. The new CZI funding will allow CSHL to hire two or three full-time staff, Inglis says. Although CZI is not disclosing the size of its contribution, for comparison, arXiv has annual operating costs of $1.3 million and posts about 9000 preprints a month.

The bioRxiv grant is part of CZI’s $3 billion, 10-year science initiative to treat or prevent all diseases launched 7 months ago by Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. In addition to the money, CZI engineers will help bioRxiv develop open-source software tools and other enhancements. For example, bioRxiv wants to convert the full text of papers now posted as PDFs to a machine-readable format such as HTML so they’re easier to read and search.

The goals of the CZI-funded expansion of bioRxiv appear to overlap with those of a planned preprint service being assembled by ASAPbio, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. ASAPbio set a 30 April deadline for bids to build a service that would aggregate life science preprints from bioRxiv and other servers.

Some scientists have questioned why the group isn’t simply working to expand bioRxiv. But Inglis notes that “there are different opinions within the community” about whether bioRxiv should be the life science community’s central preprint server.

ASAPbio Director Jessica Polka calls the CZI news “very exciting. BioRxiv is a major player in the [biology preprints] ecosystem and we’re excited that they’re developing further.” Asked about overlap with ASAPbio’s planned archive, Polka adds, “I look forward to understanding more about the CZI-bioRxiv plans so that we can develop a plan that makes the best use of resources.”