Silly arguments to restrict access to preprints

Tom Sheldon, a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre (SMC), London, had an interesting proposition – at least at first – published in Nature on July 24. The journal’s Twitter handle had tweeted it thus: “Do you think publishing on preprint servers is good or bad for science?” Though the question immediately set off alarm bells, I thought that like many news reports and magazine features these days, perhaps the tweet was desperate to get a reader interested in what was going to be a more nuanced argument. I was wrong.

Though the following line comes much farther down the article, it deftly encompasses its central – and misguided – animus: “How can we have preprints and support good journalism?” There is no contradiction here but, as we’ll see, there is a strong reflection of Nature‘s own tendency to publish ideas for their glamour.

As much as I’d welcome changes to the preprint ecology that would make it always easier for journalists to report on a paper, it’s not the preprint’s fault if a story is found to be wrong or misleading. Such a thing could only be because the journalist hasn’t done their due diligence, especially in mid-2018, when the pursuit of truth(s) has been gripped by post-truth, fake news, false balance, discussions on the “view from nowhere”, etc. For example, Sheldon writes,

Imagine early findings that seem to show climate change is natural or that a common vaccine is unsafe. Preprints on subjects such as those could, if they become a story that goes viral, end up misleading millions, whether or not that was the intention of the authors.

A lazy journalist will be lazy. A bad journalist will misrepresent a paper if they have to. A good journalist will stop to check, especially if they are aware that climate change carries a 95% consensus among scientists and that vaccines have often been misreported on in the recent past. Such awareness (what many in India would call ‘general knowledge’) can go a long way. It is why journalists are expected to consume the news as much as they would like to be involved in producing it. And preprints are not going to improve or worsen this situation.

Sheldon continues,

I’ll admit that we do not yet have examples of harm from such stories, but this is probably because — at the moment — only a tiny fraction of preprints cover health-related or controversial fields.

I’m not sure how true this is. More importantly, journalists constantly misrepresent even peer-reviewed papers, on health or other subjects. Quoting @avinashtn: “Andrew Wakefield‘s MMR vaccine ‘study’ was peer-reviewed, as was arsenic-based DNA. Nature is being disingenuous because preprints will hurt them.” Tell you what, I buy it because it is eminently possible.

It is also funny here that, in its pursuit to be seen as both selective and recognised as an identifier of paradigm-defining research, Nature often publishes research papers that are more spectacular than accurately representative of science as it is. To quote Björn Brembs, a professor of neurogenetics at the Universität Regensburg, Bavaria, and an important voice in the global open access movement, “Nature is among the group of journals which stand out as publishing the least reliable science” – elaborated here and here.

I also appreciate Sheldon’s reaching out (as in the excerpt below) to journalists but I don’t get the part where it is implied that embargoes give journalists more time to prepare for a story than do preprints. How is that? And this is a problem only if someone is restricting access to or preventing journalists from soliciting and publishing independent comment, and which Sheldon admits to in a different context in his article. (Ivan Oransky writes in a just-published Embargo Watch post that this is called a “close-hold embargo”, used to encourage stenography.)

It is not enough to shrug and blame journalists, and it is unhelpful to dismiss those journalists who can accurately convey complex science to a mass audience. Scientists need to be part of these debates — with their eyes open to how the media works. Journalists do include appropriate caveats or even decide not to run a story when conclusions are tentative, but that happens only because they have been given enough time and breathing space to assess it. If the scientific community isn’t careful, preprints could take that resource away.

It would be best for everyone involved (although not the journals) if we set aside preprints and fixed university press releases instead. Peer-review doesn’t always point to good science and journals aren’t the only ones to perform it. Other scientists do it in the open through post-publication review and journalists do it by enlisting independent scrutiny.

If there is any concern that preprints are less legitimate than papers published by scientific journals (post-peer-review) are: I think we can all agree that, most often, peer-review isn’t the first time a scientist shows their paper to an independent expert, and that ‘updating’ preprints – at least on arXiv – is something scientists wants to avoid; it may not be as bad as issuing a correction to or retracting a published paper but it carries its own implications. As a result, it should be okay for scientists to issue press releases, or simply just notifications, along with their preprints, and for organisations like the SMC, where Sheldon works, to make it easier for journalists to reach out to independent experts.

The part I found the most convincing about Sheldon’s argument is this:

Another risk is the inverse — and this one could matter more to some researchers. Under the preprint system, one intrepid journalist trawling the servers can break a story; by the time other reporters have noticed, it’s old news, and they can’t persuade their editors to publish.

There have been cases in which a preprint that garnered news stories got a second flurry of coverage when it was published in a journal. But generally, the rule is ‘it has to be new to be news’. Reacting to our blog, Tom Whipple, science editor of The Times in the United Kingdom, tweeted: “I’m not sure how to keep a newspaper in profitable existence that decides to give people news they’ve already read on the BBC.”

… but I have questions still. Dear editors, who are you competing with and why? Is the BBC getting everything right? Is the BBC even covering everything from all angles? I feel like there’s some context missing here. A cursory search on Google for Whipple’s comment only turned up Sheldon’s article in Nature. I doubt Whipple’s entire comment was that single line because, off the top of my head, it anticipates one of only two ways ahead: scale or go niche. The latter is much more effective as a strategy to take on the BBC with.

Edit, July 27: Whipple’s Twitter thread about BBC and embargoes in general is here. There’s also a Tom Chivers tweet in there that I largely agree with – as does Whipple – and which makes a point somewhat similar to mine, which is that even if journalists are finding it harder to compete with each other, taking away preprints isn’t going to fix anything. //

The bigger point is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater – to not push an issue that has demonstrably minimal late-downstream effects back upstream, where the given solution (of preprints) is working perfectly fine. But if you’re considering taking away preprints because incompetent journalists are screwing up, the problems as you’re perceiving them are going to get a lot worse – in ways too numerous, and too obvious, to delineate here. More access is always better.