Life scientists are catching up in the preprint game

Biomedical researchers wait?eight months?on average after submitting an article to a journal for it to be published. To get their results out faster, an increasing number of life scientists are now turning to a practice that’s long been popular among physicists and mathematicians: publishing preprints.

Preprints – draft versions of papers made available before any peer-review process – offer a lot of benefits. They get results in front of peers faster, giving them an opportunity to provide rapid feedback. Preprints also enable scientists to get cited right away and help them build an audience for their work before it’s published.

Biologists, in fact, were early adopters of preprints. In a "forgotten experiment", the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created a preprint exchange for biologists in the 1960s that was discontinued after a few years. While preprints remained an exception in the life sciences for decades after, they became the standard in physics and mathematics.

Now researchers, like Jussi Leinonen, who is currently working at Bayer, are helping biology and life science preprints make a comeback. In 2017, biologists, chemists, and medical researchers were all among the top ten largest contributors of preprints to ResearchGate – with biologists’ preprints making up over ten percent of all preprints submitted.

Leinonen, whose research focuses on stem cells and cardiology, shared his experience uploading a preprint to ResearchGate with us.

ResearchGate: Why did you share the preprint?

Jussi Leinonen: After publishing my last two publications, I got a little bit frustrated with how long it takes to get feedback and the quality of feedback you get from reviewers at journals. I had already prepared the manuscript for the preprint I shared on ResearchGate, and was talking with my co-authors about what we should do with it. They said it’s up to you.

I knew that ResearchGate had the option to share preprints and I think of myself as a person who likes to try new things. Before I put it up, I actually didn’t know anyone else who had submitted a preprint to ResearchGate, but I thought I’d be a rebel and try it out. I was really surprised by the number of people reading and commenting on the preprint. I also got emails.

RG: What kind of feedback did you get? How is this feedback helping you?

Leinonen: I got feedback from clinicians, who were thinking about applying this research to human or clinical studies. I also got feedback from senior researchers who told me what could be changed. The comments I got were good and will definitely improve the manuscript. I was happy I got nice feedback for the manuscript.

My previous publications were somewhat hard to publish because there was always a reviewer who was totally against the idea because what I was doing was innovative. So it was encouraging to see so many positive comments.


"The comments I got were good and will definitely improve the manuscript."


RG: Were you at all afraid of being scooped when you put this research on ResearchGate?

Leinonen: I wasn’t. The idea behind this research wasn’t really patentable and that made it easier. It’s a technique. It’s not a new substance and I personally didn’t think that it was commercially valuable. So I wasn’t afraid of being scooped. I was glad to promote it and hear from people who might advance it with a large animal study.

RG: Publishing a preprint seems to vary from field to field. In physics, for example, it’s much more common and has been for a long time. In biology, it just started to become popular a couple of years ago. Do you see a difference in fields and their willingness to share preprints?

Leinonen: I’m in stem cell research and I think my field is very competitive with a lot of money involved. I would say it’s quite nasty. People publishing in the top journals, racing to be the first – that kind of stuff. Physicists are maybe more open. Also, prepublication data is rarely seen at conferences if you think about stem cell research.


"I thought I’d be a rebel and try it out."


RG: What risks do you see in publishing preprints? How do you feel about research being spread without peer review, potentially reaching the public?

Leinonen: It could be cumbersome, especially if it concerns humans and treatments. My study wasn’t applied or clinical. But of course, it could be a problem if the press just picks up very popular research and writes about it.

But if other researchers can comment on the preprint, and the author can’t remove or edit the comments, then I don’t see a problem. Can I remove the comments or not?

RG: No.

Leinonen: Then I don’t think it’s a problem.

RG: What’s the next step for this preprint? Are you submitting it to a journal?

Leinonen: I’m thinking about it – I haven’t done it yet. I’m not in a hurry; I already finished my PhD and I don’t have a lot of pressure to publish. Maybe that also made it easier to share the preprint. Now I’m surer of myself. I think it’s more difficult for researchers at the start of their career to share preprints. They often need to impress senior researchers who may be more critical of this new way of doing things than I am. I don’t really know, but that’s the impression I get. I think it would be good if there were a change in this mindset. I think the preprint system ResearchGate offers is a good opening for that.