Preprints & morale of PhD students

The validity and usefulness of preprints such as https://biorxiv.org or https://arxiv.org is a topic of lovers and haters within the life sciences community. I should disclose that I am among those lovers, but here I am not going to develop the many arguments in favor, as these have been discussed elsewhere (for example see this, this, this, or Bonus section at the end of this post). In this brief post I highlight an argument I think has been overlooked:

“preprints positively impact the morale of PhD students

Competition in research is very high (It has increased, or so I have been told by multiple senior scientists). While putting a number of a metric of competition is difficult, what it is certain is that there are many more new PhDs graduating every year than academic jobs opening (https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html; although there are other paths outside academia after a PhD). This not only means that early career researchers are competing for jobs but they are also competing to get their papers in those limited number of “slots” available at the “fancy scientific journals”. A consequence of this is that publishing can be a very (VERY) slow process, where your manuscripts get rejected multiple times at different journals and you need to submit again and again. My slowest personal experience was with my first paper, which was almost 650 days from submission to publication. I was lucky that my supervisors were very supportive (in many ways) and were happy to post the manuscript in bioRxiv, so I did not feel my work was completely useless and ignored ;-). As a result of these and other idiosyncrasies the science world, demoralized PhD students are all over the place in academia. In fact, given the high rates of anxiety and depression, some authors say there is a “mental health crisis” in grad school (https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089). There are so many hard-working, intelligent students that struggle to get their papers out in journals for years, even when the papers are well written and the science is solid!

Avoiding this demoralizing experience might require structural changes in the publication process or our culture of super-production. However, I believe just accepting preprints as one step in the current publication dogma can soften the consequences of the system in the morale of PhD students. So for the supervisors out there reading: consider posting on bioRxiv (see some benefits in the BONUS section below) and, please, don’t tell your students that “this paper could be published in a X months in Y journal”. You know that is very unlikely and will put pressure on the naïve idealistic student. The reality is that although many scientists are optimistic by nature, a timely publication depends on many factors external to the student such as journal processing times, or the mood of editors and reviewers [when a prediction of publication date of a manuscript in preparation has ever become true?]. Instead, when a manuscript is becoming a solid and polished piece, say that “it can be bioRxived”. That is totally feasible and it mostly depends on the hard work of the student and the supervisor. Putting all the hopes of a student in seeing his/her research published on a journal’s website teaches a wrong lesson of the final aim of science, promotes vanity search, and most likely will erode self-confidence of the student, which also lowers productivity!.

Going one step further: Some (I think many) universities ask to have manuscript(s) published to be able to graduate. Again, because of external factors during publication this can lead, at least, to frustration and, sometimes, to problematic life consequences such as non-renewed working contracts, visa problems, etc. I understand that universities need some kind of accessible scientific output to award a doctorate title. To reduce unnecessary complication, the university could establish that to graduate you need x number of bioRxived manuscripts that are undergoing the publication process or that have been publicly peer-reviewed (e.g. https://f1000.com, https://peercommunityin.org).

With the hope this will change some minds and help some fellow graduate students,

Moi

 

*BONUS*

For those interested, I enumerate the most common arguments for preprints, seasoned with my own opinions:

  • Science advances faster. The day after you submit your preprint, it goes online and can be read (it only gets screened automatically and by “scrolling check”).
  • When it is first archived, a unique digital object identifier (DOI) is generated with an associated date of publishing. This allows to clearly determine chronological priority.
  • Preprints have typically a Creative Commons licence. You must give credit (cite the paper), but basically research is universally available.
  • You get feedback from a large community in social media platforms or directly in the dedicated section of the preprint website. From experience and chatting with colleagues, private feedback is typically more than public feedback.
  • As the work is publicly available, you can put preprints in your CV and now in many international grant applications preprints “count”.
  • Probably the strongest (rightful) critique of preprints is that research should undergo a peer-review process. For this I refer to a very nice initiative to peer-review preprints: https://evolbiol.peercommunityin.org. Now there is no excuse!
  • And to conclude with a mischievous smile: After all, a preprint and a published article might only differ in that only 2 people more have read the latter.

 

 

 

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