Good news! On May 15, the Springer group of journals – including Nature – announced that it now encourages scientists to share preprint copies of their papers with journalists and others and that doing so wouldn’t affect how the paper is handled by the journal itself. The announcement thus brings Nature‘s adoption of a 50-year-old principle called the Ingelfinger rule to a close.
Scientists conduct studies, write up their methods and findings in a document colloquially called a paper, and submit the paper to a journal for peer-review and publishing. A preprint paper is a copy of the paper that is uploaded to a publicly accessible server before peer-review is conducted.
Last year, Nature published a now-infamous article by Tom Sheldon, a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre (SMC), London, arguing that journalists shouldn’t be able to access preprint papers because it leads to bad journalism. The argument was quickly met with widespread backlash, including from many scientists around the world. Nature‘s announcement yesterday is a sign that the journal (whose parent body partly funds the SMC) saw sense in the backlash and now supports preprints.
Its announcement states, “By making early research findings accessible quickly and easily, preprints allow researchers to claim priority of discovery, receive community input and demonstrate evidence of progress for funders and others.” The ‘community input’ bit has been a game-changer of sorts with the rise of post-public peer-review, where independent scientists comment on each other’s papers on a common platform. In the journal system, the journal brings together a group of scientists to critique a submitted paper.
As I have argued before, preprints are good and, unlike Sheldon’s advice, taking them away will only make things worse for science journalism. Detractors have argued that peer-review can spare journalists from misreporting medical/clinical information and keep from causing unnecessary, and often irreversible, anxiety among millions.
This was the apparent basis for the Ingelfinger rule. In 1969, Franz J. Ingelfinger, then editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), said the journal wouldn’t evaluate scientific manuscripts scientists submitted to it if the document had already been publicised or had been submitted to another journal at the same time. The thinking was that NEJM, as a result, would present its readers with novel information while assuming the responsibility to ensure that it has also been thoroughly vetted.
However, not all research is medical/clinical, and the stakes are frequently lower – sometimes too low for a journal to justifiably claim that its peer-review, and not public peer-review, plays a particularly meaningful role. One case in point: the two scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who claimed last year that they had discovered room-temperature superconductivity. After their claims were picked up by the press – including as a three-part series by The Wire (here, here and here) – and journalists interrogated their claims by speaking to other scientists, effectively becoming a conduit for peer-review, the claims were quickly shown to be full of gaps.
It is possible the wariness over journalists covering preprint papers arises from the (misguided) belief that a newsroom covers preprint papers and ‘post-print’ papers the same way. This is not true, and Nature’s current announcement also touches on this.
… in the interests of transparency, we advise researchers to emphasise in their communications that the study has not been peer reviewed and that the findings could change. We also recommend that reporters who cover such work indicate that the study is a preprint and has not been peer reviewed, a practice that we strive to follow in these pages.
This is good policy for journalists as well; where there are exceptions, they are also likely to have arisen from newsrooms known to play fast and loose with matters of science. At the same time, it could be useful to not overstate the importance of peer-review in cases where the stakes for the public at large are low (while bearing in mind the scientist’s job could be on the line) if only because its opaque nature is a way for the journal to accrue editorial power.
There is also a social justice angle here. The people who conduct peer-review for a journal are not paid for even as the journal profits – often immensely – from the symbolism and knowledge inherent in this exercise. To be clear, this isn’t a problem that preprints were designed to solve but they do solve it in a sense. Journals that charge a fee for peer-reviewing a paper without paying for peer-review effectively impose an economic barrier to accessing the paper – a barrier that should, in fact, not be there. This in turn limits the impact that the paper can have, as Steyan Hamad, founder of the CogPrints Eprint Archive, argued in The Lancet in 2000.
On the other hand, preprints forsake peer-review – even as they’re explicit about doing so – for publicity and accessibility. And dropping the Ingelfinger rule means scientists intent on having their papers published with Nature – a prominent example of academics’ preference for ‘prestige’ titles that don’t bring more to the table than their reputation for selectivity and elitism – needn’t worry about having the impact of their work limited by Nature‘s paywall for speaking to journalisms. This in turn will hopefully prompt more preprint papers to be available online, such as on repositories like arXiv and bioRxiv, as well as remove any inhibition that might have lingered in terms of publicly discussing one’s work.
Our job as science journalists is to be on science’s side and this means it is important for us to be able to critique the journal as well, not just the papers it publishes. Preprints are an important part of that endeavour. Even as we attempt to downplay the relative importance of ‘prestige’ journals and the oversize influence they have on academic publishing practices around the world, Nature is an important ally on this occasion.