Columns Indian Scenario

Recognition of preprints in research assessment frameworks in India

Sudeepa Nandi

Open science, particularly through preprints, is gaining global traction and is integral to India’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. While preprints offer accessibility benefits, their adoption in India lags, highlighting the need for recognition and incentives at various career and funding assessment levels. In this article, Sudeepa Nandi, an ASAPbio fellow and a PhD student at TIFR Mumbai, discusses the barriers to the preprint model in India and offers some key recommendations.

Preprint titleimage
Image for representation only. Credit: Pixabay

In recent years, open science has captured global attention and has also been a prominent feature in India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2020). As an open science practice, preprints have now emerged as a means to increase accessibility and equity in sharing research knowledge. However, preprints are not limited only to revolutionising the way research findings are disseminated worldwide; they also offer a promising solution to various issues like high Article Publishing Costs (APCs), subscription costs, delays, and negatively impacting biases that the traditional publication system inherently poses to the research community. 

Thus, preprints are situated at the intersection of open science and responsible research assessment. Yet, the question is whether we are fully realising their potential in India.

An evidence-based need to incentivise preprint culture

While there have been ongoing discussions globally revolving around awareness and adoption of the preprint model, its adoption trend is disproportionately skewed towards Europe and the US as compared to the rest of the world (including India), as revealed in a recent survey by Rong Ni and Ludo Waltman from the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University. This survey, along with a previous one by ASAPbio in 2020, brings hope that preprint authors everywhere are now convinced about the benefits of the preprints. Respondents of the recent survey believed that recognising and incentivising preprints could significantly drive the adoption of the preprint model. 

This was also noted in Susmita Das’ (Centre for Open Knowledge) and Sridhar Gutam’s (Open Access India) survey report-2020 in the Indian context. More interestingly, in a recent online meeting, hosted by the Indian National Young Academy of Science (INYAS) in collaboration with Department of Science and Technology- Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR) and International Science Council (ISC), Waltman reiterated that secondary analysis of their survey data has shown that respondents from India, more than their counterparts from other regions of the world, realised that preprinting would be boosted if preprints are recognised at different levels of career advancement and funding assessments. 

Following this, in the same webinar, based on Brian Nosek’s strategy for bringing change in research culture, Waltman elaborated on the different levels of the pyramid for the preprint culture development: (from the lowest tier to highest) 1) founding preprint servers, 2) citable preprint review mechanisms and platforms, 3) initiatives normalising preprints and preprint reviews, 4) Making the preprint system rewarding, and 5) Mandates for preprinting. While Waltman highlighted that the initial tiers are somewhat established now, more effort is needed to build the top two tiers to bring the preprint model to fruition for the global research community. 

While several discipline-specific preprint servers (arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv, SocArxiv, etc.) are available, preprint review platforms, initiatives and communities such as PREreview, preLights, Preprint Club, Publish Your Reviews (by ASAPbio), etc. are making journal-agnostic community reviews publicly available, citable and findable. In the Global North, several funders and research organisations, including EMBO, HFSP, NIH, Wellcome Trust, HHMI, The Francis Crick Institute (UK), etc., have supported preprints in their assessment criteria at different levels. Additionally, some journals (like EMBO Press and eLife) are also accepting preprinted manuscripts, with eLife even making it mandatory for articles to be preprinted before submission. However, these practices vastly vary in a discipline-specific manner.

The Indian perspective on preprints

To better understand the Indian scenario regarding the usage of preprints, IndiaBioscience and ASAPbio jointly organised a three-part workshop series with different stakeholders across the Indian scientific community. It was evident from the discussions that although some departments in institutions like the IISERs, IITs, and TIFRs are encouraging preprinting at the PhD graduation level, other research institutes (including private institutes and university colleges) are majorly dependent on the publication of journal articles as a criterion for PhD completion. Despite the University Grants Commission (UGC) ruling out the mandate for published articles as a PhD graduation criterion in 2022, its implementation at colleges is still lagging.

It’s worth noting that although some of the research institutes mentioned above welcome the idea of making preprints a graduation requirement, they still hesitate to integrate preprints into their research assessment frameworks at higher levels (for promotions and faculty hiring). 

Similarly, Indian funding agencies have not yet incorporated preprints as acceptable research outputs in their grant assessment procedures, unlike most funding bodies from other countries. For more insights into the academic publishing culture in India and adoption of preprints, you can watch this YI Huddle by IndiaBioscience.

IndiaBioscience YI Huddle 8 webinar on navigating academia publishing for YIs.
IndiaBioscience YI Huddle 8 webinar on navigating academia publishing for YIs. 

Barriers to the preprint model in India

In the Indian context, the common themes of recurring barriers of including preprints in research evaluations were identified as:

  1. Credibility of preprints: With a significant number of retracted preprints, especially in the biomedical field during the pandemic, scientists have voiced concerns about the reliability of preprint information before undergoing thorough review. Apart from erroneous preprints, there is a notable challenge in identifying gaming” preprints, which are created solely to inflate authors’ publication counts. Deceptive micro-preprints can result in unfair assessments if integrated into research assessment frameworks.
  2. Discipline (and often niche)-based variability in preprint practices adds to the complexity in formulating uniform reforms in hiring and promotion policies in institutes.
  3. No scoop-protection: Although preprints have DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers), some researchers fear their ideas shared in preprints could be misused without due credit by other labs that are equipped with more advanced and fast-paced research tools. This compelled them to see preprints as a two-way sword, more on this in a recent IndiaBioscience YI Huddle 8 webinar with Vinita Gowda, Tropical Ecology and Evolution Scientist, IISER Bhopal.
  4. Resistance to changing mindsets: Journal-based metrics, like Journal Impact Factors (JIFs) and number of publications, has been used as proxies to measure research excellence and output (although wrongfully!) for long. This practice has now strongly been imprinted among many researchers, making them less open to any change from the status quo. This attitude is fuelled by the structural frameworks of assessment, including university and research institute rankings, the greed of predatory journals, and researchers’ vanity in seeking publication in so-called prestigious” journals.
  5. Generational gap: Younger scientists noted that resistance to preprints or peer-reviewed preprints is mainly among senior scientists on assessment committees, although some are gradually becoming more receptive to newer ideas.
  6. Hierarchical policy-making system: While some individual Indian researchers encourage peer-reviewed preprints, participants suggested that mandates for preprint incorporation in assessment frameworks need to come from higher-level policy-making bodies to minimise conflicts in attitudes and executions within assessment committees.
  7. Practicality due to lack of preparedness/​training/​capacity to assess preprints in hiring and grant assessment committees: Considering the high volume of applications for faculty positions or funding, participants believed that evaluating preprints individually, without relying on journal-based metrics, would add to the workload of already-burdened assessors. 
  8. India-specific models for reforming assessment framework: Most of the workshop attendees believed that the preprint model successful elsewhere might not suit India due to differences in research infrastructure, specifically trained capacity, and community attitudes. However, they expressed optimism about gradual progress in this matter.

To formulate a detailed report based on the benefits and challenges experienced by Indian preprint users, ASAPbio is collecting more preprint stories from India as one of their recent activities. 

Key recommendations

Based on the discussions in the recent workshops in India, some of the key recommendations were:

  1. Fostering trust in preprints: This can be enhanced through peer-reviews of preprinted articles, linked along with the preprints such that those can guide preprint quality evaluations by readers and assessors.
  2. Preprint usage and scoop-protection guidelines will help researchers entrust in preprinting and embrace the preprint model more.
  3. Promoting awareness about preprints and peer-reviewed preprints: Activities like discussing preprints in journal clubs, reviewing preprints, and publishing the reviews can be encouraged from the Early Career Researcher (ECR) levels. Involving more voices from the Indian research community would be advantageous for enhancing diversity within the peer-review community.
  4. Redesigning the definition of scientific excellence and outputs: While journal-based metrics have long served in a flawed way to assess research excellence and outputs, it would be in the community’s interest to broaden the definition of scientific outputs and excellence-measuring parameters. Hence preprints, as a tool for open science, should be recognised as an efficient, responsible and valid research output.
  5. Restructuring assessment frameworks to include alternative CV formats where candidates can highlight their preprints as well as cite the respective peer reviews to make evaluation easier for assessors. 
  6. Top-down approach in mandating incorporation of preprints: Mandating preprints from higher-level policymaking bodies can help ensure uniform adoption.
  7. Journals to encourage the preprint model: Like eLife and EMBO Press, if more journals, specifically the Indian journals, encourage preprint submissions and maybe mandate them, the adoption of the preprint model will be accelerated as a feedback result.
  8. Funding for researching India-specific preprint incorporation and training models and building related infrastructure and capacity.

Recommendations for the global community can serve as guidelines wherever suited for the Indian organisations seeking to reform their assessment frameworks. From India, TIFR Mumbai, has been an early adopter in changing its graduation framework for the biological sciences department to allow preprints in place of published papers for PhD student graduation. Their altered graduation requirement policy can help other institutes too. 

Moreover, a participant, drawing from their experience as an international grant committee assessor, highlighted the directive from the steering committee that scientists, as field experts, are capable enough to evaluate preprint data without relying on journal-solicited reviews or brand names. 

This sentiment resonated with other workshop attendees, prompting the question: If scientists globally can do this, why not Indian scientists?

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