AAugust 14, 1991 was a seemingly uneventful day in the history of science. But on that day a new model of scientific publishing, the preprint server, was born, and the three decades that have passed since have seen the phenomenon become a substantial channel for the dissemination of information.
For about a year before that date, astrophysicist Joanne Cohn, then at Princeton University, maintained a mailing list which she used to share unrevised manuscripts, mostly on the topic of string theory, with a group of theoretical physicists. In the summer of 1991, Cohn spoke with physicist Paul Ginsparg at a workshop at the Aspen Center for Physics. Ginsparg, who had recently taken a position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was on Cohn’s original mailing list and asked him to automate submissions to his list. According to Cohn, he offered to work on a system that would make it easier to share preprints in his archives and got to work on a few sample scripts immediately after their conversation. Two months later, on August 14, Los Alamos ArXiv was launched as a system that maintained a central repository for articles distributed via automated emails to some 180 researchers in more than 20 countries.
Since then, the Los Alamos ArXiv has evolved from a repository and list server to an FTP file server to a website, arXiv.org. It has also grown to encompass more than just theoretical physics manuscripts, including articles on astronomy, computer science, mathematics, and quantitative biology. This website ultimately inspired the creation of bioRxiv, a preprint repository focused on biology, ChemRxiv, a pre-print archive for chemistry studies, and more recently medRxiv, which traffics medical research. arXiv Now attracts around 16,000 submissions per month, he says on his website; it now contains nearly 2 million manuscripts and monthly submissions to bioRxiv, ChemRxiv, and medRxiv number in the hundreds or in the thousands.
This trend was dramatically accelerated by COVID-19, with all three biomedicine-focused preprint servers inundated with manuscripts about the viral plague that turned into a pandemic in early 2020. According to statistics tracked by the National Institutes of Health, about 20% of research results around COVID-19 come in the form of preprints. It seemed that the preprint servers were ready for their close-up, showing off their main advantages over conventional science publishing: a faster path from generating results and sharing them with the wider scientific community and the public – and a bypass of the not-entirely-wart-free peer review process. Faced with an overwhelming appetite for an overview of SARS-CoV-2, preprint servers represented a new pipeline that could accelerate science in a crisis situation, when time was of the essence and newly acquired knowledge could help shorten the timeframe. life of an extremely disruptive. pandemic.
But this idealized vision of rationalized communication of research results has failed; instead, misleading results have been widely circulated and questionable therapies have been accepted as panaceas. In this issue, toxicologist and emergency physician Michael Mullins details the case of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a drug that clinicians have been prescribing for years to treat rheumatic diseases. In March 2020, as COVID-19 swept the world, researchers released a preprint espousing the utility of HCQ in the treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection in medRxiv. Reports of the promising development spread in the popular press, the United States stockpiled the drug, and prescriptions increased in April. But within weeks, more detailed scans highlighted the emerging fact that HCQ was not effective against COVID-19. Could lives have been saved or health saved if the world had not grasped the mistaken promise of a drug that turned out to be ineffective? May be. Was this preprint at fault? May be. “Just as ‘news is the first draft of history’, preprints can become the first draft of science,” writes Mullins, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Journalism is a key link in the dissemination of scientific findings and, ultimately, their translation into clinical practice. As with all research, peer reviewed or not, the right framing of science is essential to disseminate reliable, robust and potentially actionable research results. With the pre-prints, the task is even more difficult, because the results in question did not have to pass control before being made public. Data or findings from preprints are not low quality or misleading by default. But in the absence of the peer review quality assurance layer, even with all the shortcomings and pitfalls that The scientist and others have explored it: Preprints are at a higher risk of showing unreliable results.
It just means that news outlets, members of the public, researchers, politicians and other interested parties need to be extra vigilant when reviewing the findings reported in preprints. Mullins, who is also editor of the open access journal Toxicological communications (and my next door neighbor), and other scientists offer several suggestions for this appropriate contextualization of preprints on the part of the research community. Give preprints DOI numbers that expire after a certain time instead of the permanent DOIs they now receive, calling them “unreferenced manuscripts,” or emblazon each page of preprints with a warning label that alerts readers to the unrevised nature of the paper may well help portray preprints as those early drafts of science.
On the journalism side, it is imperative that the newsrooms of media juggernauts and niche publications adopt policies that strike a balance – between the rapid communication of valuable information and the dissemination of well-founded scientific information – by contextualizing and by appropriately verifying the results reported in preprints. TO The scientist, that’s exactly what we did, and our policies regarding preprints are posted on the Editorial Policies page of www.the-scientist.com. Please come there to review the details and feel free to share your thoughts and comments on our social media canals. In my opinion, preprints and the servers that host them still hold promise and utility that could come in handy when the next global health emergency arrives. The scientific community, the public, the press and the political sphere must adjust our views and our treatment of these early drafts of science in order to avoid the pitfalls and to reap the benefits of more direct communication of the results of the science. research.