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Preprints and biological research in India: together in sickness and in health?

Divya Vishwanath

Uploading scientific studies to preprint servers before sending them off to journals for peer-review has become a standard practice in the physical and mathematical sciences. However, biologists have been slow in embracing the trend. In this article, Divya examines the advantages offered by as well as the risk associated with the widespread use of preprints during the time of the pandemic. 

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What is common among the studies mentioned below?

Yes, they are all related to COVID-19. Yes, they have all been published in well-known scientific journals. However, there is another feature that they share: they are all studies that cite preprints. Information from earlier research published as preprints helped these scientists further their research. 

The preprint wave

COVID-19 has united scientists globally like never before; it has broken down frontiers, opened up paywalls, and made research findings easily accessible. Ever since the pandemic struck, science has been, much like the virus itself, unfettered, unrestricted, and available to all. 

Preprints have played a huge role in this. Preprints are drafts of scientific research papers published online without the process of peer-review – a step that has come to be synonymous with submission to any scientific journal. The median time for an article to get published in a scientific journal is around 100 days. A lot of research critical in the fight against COVID-19— sequencing the viral genome, developing vaccines, or using pre-existent drugs for therapy — would have been derailed under these timelines, possibly with terrifying consequences. 

In 1991, with the creation of the preprint repository arXiv, physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists embraced the preprint trend. However, biologists took much longer to warm up to preprints. Today’s best-known biology preprint servers, bioRxiv and medRxiv, were established only in 2013 and 2019 respectively. In 2019, Indian scientists launched IndiaRxiv, a preprint repository for researchers in India. Even then, not many Indian biologists seem to be currently riding this wave. 

Sridhar Gutam, senior scientist at Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, convener of Open Access India and one of the leaders of the IndiaRxiv initiative, feels that scientists across disciplines are not aware of preprints. He bases his observations on a survey that he and his colleague conducted among researchers of SAARC countries in April-May 2020. The results of the survey show that not many in India cite preprints in their articles or know if their preprints got cited. Many researchers think that journals may not accept their preprints. There is a sense of insecurity that their work might get scooped and someone else might publish ahead of them,” he says.

Why preprints?

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. On 10th January this year, a few scientists based in China released the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV‑2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Scientists all over the world toiled night and day and within a span of four months, over 16000 scientific studies related to COVID-19 were published. More than 6000 of these were hosted on preprint servers – an unprecedented number in biological research thus far. A search on bioRxiv with the search string COVID-19+India” throws up close to 1300 preprints posted between January and September this year. 

One such study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, suggested an effective way to identify COVID-19 infected individuals by pooling RT-PCR samples during testing. This proved to be an efficient and cost-effective method to detect disease prevalence, easing the burden on the already-stretched testing infrastructure. Jacob John, MD, Department of Community Health, Christian Medical College, Vellore, who was one of the authors of this study, explains why the team chose to publish their findings through a preprint. Some of the data in that paper was of immediate relevance to the scientific community; therefore the need to openly share our observations was more important than a high impact publication,” says John.

Sutirth Dey, professor of ecology and evolution at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune has been the corresponding author for about 17 studies first published as preprints. Publications, especially in areas of ecology and evolution take time. In the case of inter-related research, if the initial studies are not accepted by journals right away, subsequent studies suffer a delay. However, preprints offer a solution: subsequent papers can cite preprint versions and be submitted. Dey believes that preprints have brought the scientific community closer. He mentions an earlier instance when comments from some French researchers on his team’s preprint helped them improve their study. 

Many other researchers have also started using preprints regularly to publish their work, irrespective of the pandemic. Vidita Vaidya, professor of neurobiology at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai says, We believe it is a timely and effective way of getting our work out to the global community. Also, philosophically we believe that taxpayer-funded science should be freely accessible to the very people who fund our work.” 

The cost of open access publishing in most journals is unaffordable to many researchers. Preprints solve this paywall problem. Anyone can access our work,” Dey adds.

Is there a downside?

Like everything else, there are positives and negatives to this trend. The publish or perish’ philosophy driving research at some institutions could push researchers to put out a publication in haste – without the thorough checks usually done during the peer review process. For example, a study that came out in January 2020 from a prominent Indian institute hinted at the SARS-CoV‑2 having been engineered by humans in a lab. The article was quickly retracted after sharp criticism by the scientific community, who found glaring loopholes in the study. 

Amidst such stories of rushed research, how can credibility be attached to preprints? Does accuracy become a trade-off in the need for speed? Vaidya strongly disagrees, Our studies are uploaded on preprint servers and submitted for peer review at the same time. Hence, they are complete and ready for review. I see no reason why you would want your name linked to something that is not carried out and conducted well. That itself is a powerful deterrent in my opinion.”

John thinks it is not as much about speed as it is about relevance. Citing his study as an example he says, Figuring out the role of pooled testing after the pandemic is of precious little relevance.” He agrees that the peer review process is a safeguard against misinformation. However, he feels that the pandemic has highlighted the unacceptable delays in the traditional peer-review process. 

Dey has a different take on this matter. I do not think that preprints are any more a compromise to scientific accuracy than releasing beta-versions of software,” he says.

The way forward

How can genuine research continue to make use of the benefits that preprints offer, while keeping the credibility of the study intact? It can be argued that this is a collective responsibility of the scientists as well as the preprint repositories. Scientists should not treat submissions to preprint servers differently from submissions to journal websites, and should only post completed drafts as preprints after careful review. Preprint servers should have measures in place for vetting of the drafts. 

Dey places the onus on the media as well. He says, The media should stop scanning or reporting preprints and should report only after a paper has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. In the absence of publicity for putting out a preprint, scientists will go back to using pre-print servers the way they should be used, which in turn will alleviate some of the issues related to haste that we saw during the pandemic.”

Are preprints here to stay?

Vaidya feels that preprints are going to play a key role in the near future, Preprints will be accepted widely as the first, fast way to disseminate findings before one gets them out as peer-reviewed papers in journals.”

After the standard peer-review process, reviewers’ comments are made known to the authors and the editors. In the case of preprints, the comments made by the scientific community is out there for everyone to see. Preprints improve the quality of published science by opening the content to scientific scrutiny even before review. Indian biologists are slowly coming to realize the advantages of the system, and preprints will be embraced en masse sooner than later,” says Dey.

Gutam has observed that the list of journals accepting preprints is growing. He has a list of steps that can further strengthen this trend. Indian journals should encourage the submission of preprints. Citing preprints as per standard format will increase their credibility and lead to discussions on the work published. Preprints should be taken into consideration while awarding grants or promotions,” he says. 

It looks like there is considerable work to be done for preprints to gain wide acceptance both in India as well as globally. However, the tide is changing rapidly. It is probably just a matter of time before preprints become the new normal. 

Written By

Divya is a scientist by passion and profession, and possesses a deep love for reading and learning. Writing is her way of translating the thoughts and questions in her head into a structured form to help her learn more.