Why the Ecology Letters editorial board should reconsider its No vote on preprints

As I’ve argued here, and in PLOS Biology, preprints are important. They accelerate the scientific dialog, improve the quality of published research, and provide both a fair mechanism for establishing precedence and an opportunity for early-career researchers to quickly demonstrate the importance of their research. And I’m certainly not the only one who thinks this:

One of the things slowing the use of preprints in ecology is the fact that some journals still have policies against considering manuscripts that have been posted as preprints. The argument is typically based on the Ingelfinger rule, which prohibits publishing the same original research in multiple journals. However, almost no one actually believes that this rule applies to preprints anymore. Science, Nature, PNAS, the Ecological Society of America, the British Ecological Society, the Royal Society, Springer, Wiley, and Elsevier all generally allow the posting of preprints. In fact, there is only one major journal in ecology that does not consider manuscripts that are posted as preprints: Ecology Letters.

I’ve been corresponding with the Editor in Chief of Ecology Letters for some time now attempting to convince the journal to address their outdated approach to preprints. He kindly asked the editorial board to vote on this last fall and has been nice enough to both share the results and allow me to blog about them.

Sadly, the editorial board voted 2:1 to not allow consideration of manuscripts posted as preprints based primarily on the following reasons:

  1. Authors might release results before they have been adequately reviewed and considered. In particular the editors were concerned that “early career authors might do this”.
  2. Because Ecology Letters is considered to be a quick turnaround journal the need for preprints is lessened

I’d like to take this opportunity to explain to the members of the editorial board why these arguments are not valid and why it should reconsider its vote.

First, the idea that authors might release results before they have been sufficiently reviewed is not a legitimate reason for a journal to not consider preprinted manuscripts for the following reasons:

  1. This simply isn’t a journal’s call to make. Journals can make policy based on things like scientific ethics, but preventing researchers from making poor decisions is not their job.
  2. Preprints are understood to not have been peer reviewed. We have a long history in science of getting feedback from other scientists on papers prior to submitting them to journals and I’ve personally heard the previous Editor in Chief of Ecology Letters argue passionately for scientists to get external feedback before submitting to the journal. This is one of the primary reasons for posting preprints; to get review from a much broader audience than the 2-3 reviewers that will look at a paper for a journal.
  3. All of the other major ecology and general science journals already allow preprints. This means that any justification for not allowing them would need to explain why Ecology Letters is different from Science, Nature, PNAS, the ESA journals, the BES journals, the Royal Society journals, and several of the major corporate publishers. In addition, since every other major ecology journal allows preprints, this policy would only influence papers that were intended to be submitted to Ecology Letters. This is such a small fraction of the ecology literature that it will have no influence on the stated goal.
  4. We already present results prior to publication in all kinds of forms, the most common of which is at conferences, so unless we are going to disallow presenting results in talks that aren’t already published this won’t accomplish its stated goal.

Second, the idea that because Ecology Letters is so fast that preprints are unnecessary doesn’t actually hold for most papers. Most importantly, this argument ignores the importance of preprints for providing prepublication review. In addition, in the best case scenario this reasoning only holds for articles that are first submitted to Ecology Letters and are accepted. Ecology Letters has roughly a 90% rejection rate (the last time I heard a number). Since a lot of the papers that are accepted there are submitted elsewhere first I suspect that the proportion of the papers they handle that this argument works for is <5%. For all other papers the delay will be much longer. For example, let’s say I do some super exciting research (well, at least I think it’s super exciting) that I think has a chance at Science/Nature. Science and Nature are fine with me posting a preprint, but since there’s a chance that it won’t get in there, I still can’t post a preprint because I might end up submitting to Ecology Letters. My paper goes out for review at Science but gets rejected, I send it to Nature where it doesn’t go out for review, and then to PNAS where it goes out again and is rejected. I then send it to Letters where it goes out for 2 rounds of review and is eventually accepted. Give or take this process will take about a year, and that’s not a short period of time in science at all.

So, I am writing this in the hopes that the editorial board will reconsider their decision and take Ecology Letters from a journal that is actively slowing down the scientific process back to its proud history of increasing the speed with which scientific communication happens. If you know members of the Ecology Letters editorial board personally I encourage you to email them a link to this article. If any members of the editorial board disagree with the ideas presented here and in our PLOS Biology paper, I encourage them to join me in the comments section to discuss their concerns.

UPDATE: Added Wiley to the list of major publishers that allow preprints. As Emilio Bruna points out in the comments they are happy to have journals that allow posting of preprints and Biotropica is a great example of one of their journals making this shift.

UPDATE: Fixed link to Paul Krugman’s post.

UPDATE: Ecology Letters now allows preprints!!

About Ethan White

I'm a happily married dad and a scientist. I like computers, math, stats, and good scotch. I believe in the importance of open science and a free and open web.

Posted on June 30, 2014, in science. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Emilio M. Bruna

    Great post. A coue of comments:
    1) Biotropica is published by Wiley, the same publisher as Ecology Letters. They have been very supportive of Biotropica’s decision to allow preprints. http://biotropica.org/tag/preprints/. They definitely should be addee to your list of publishers that allow them.

    2) Our time-to-decision is 30-40 days on average, which is probably not too far behind EL. The logic behind the conclusion that being a quick turnaround journal negates the need for preprinting escapes me.

    On a personal note, I posted my first preprints this year and was really impressed by how useful it was to do so.

  2. Thanks Graham. That’s a very useful addition to:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_journals_by_preprint_policy
    and
    http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/

    I justed added Ecology Letters to the list.

    With regards to the listing for Wiley-Blackwell, they actually have a neutral policy and allow their journals to do whatever they want. I had originally thought that the reason Ecology Letters didn’t allow preprints was due to a Wiley-Blackwell policy, but that is not the case.

  3. Thanks Emilio. Great point about Wiley. I’ve updated the post.

    I’m definitely glad to hear that your experiences posting preprints have been positive. Mine have been great as well.

  4. Thanks for adding Ecology Letters to the list, Ethan.

  5. The argument that early career scientists may do it is appalling. For one thing it implies generalized sloppiness on our part, which I simply don’t think is true (or else we wouldn’t be so frequently solicited to do reviews…). And preprints are the opposite of being sloppy. No one (or very few people) are using preprints as a way to publicize results and bypass peer review. Instead it’s a way to have more feedback and dialogue than what peer review alone offers.

    But mostly, it implies that early career researchers are willing to publicize bad research, and that is insulting to the work ethics of a whole generation of scientists. ELE should be leading the field forward and listen to the new practices, not trying to win the contest of the most conservative journal.

  6. I completely agree Tim. I frequently see senior folks using “protecting early career scientists” to avoid making changes that the early career folks really believe in and want to see happen. It definitely comes off as an attempt to prevent the younger generation from facilitating needed change.

  7. Have just added this post to the Further Reading section of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingelfinger_rule ;-)

  8. Awesome! Thanks Graham.

  9. …I’m not surprised. I find a bit disconcerting that so many journals are accepting preprints, and none have disclosed any problem with the practice. Surely, the editorial board must be aware of these journals.

    Their first argument is paternalistic, journalists from around the world had the time to propagate the “female-named hurricanes are deadlier” nonsense before I could even read the article. *That* is a problem.

    title.replace(“it’s”, “its”)

  10. So what would you say is the best venue for preprints in ecology at the moment? arXiv is certainly the most established in science generally so maybe is the safest bet as it’s not going to disappear even if it doesn’t take off for biology. But will biology preprints gravitate somewhere more biology specific like PeerJ or biorxiv?

  11. Great question Andy. In fact there’s already a post in the queue that provides my perspective on it. So, for the long answer, check back next Monday. The short answer is the tradeoff that you’ve already identified. arXiv is well established, has good name recognition, and isn’t going anywhere. PeerJ and bioRxiv are more biology focused and have more features that modern web users are used to having, but are very green. The good news is that you really can’t go wrong at the moment, so just pick one and go for it.

  12. Great credit to the Ecology Letters editorial board, both for engaging with you on this and for allowing you to blog about their response. I hope they read and respond to your eloquent arguments (and the comments).

    Regarding the value of preprints for gaining pre-submission feedback, I’d ask the editorial board to consider the case of our Barosaurus preprint. We posted this as a PeerJ Preprint on 23 September last year. By the next morning, there were three careful, detailed reviews awaiting us. The outcome will be that the version of the paper that we eventually submit to a journal will be much stronger than it would otherwise have been.

  13. Thanks Mike. That’s a great example!

  14. Ethan, I came across your various posts about preprints. I decided to comment on this older one because it seemed most elaborate. Congratulations on your efforts and apparent success with Ecol Lett!
    While I generally appreciate the posting of preprints and agree that journals should tolerate them, I am still a bit unsure how the different advantages claimed for preprints actually go together:
    Should the same manuscript version on which you want feedback be the one that establishes precedence, proofs your productivity and be openly available?
    Formal peer review isn’t perfect, but it may still be the best measure of quality control currently in use.
    If preprints are used for establishing precedence and measuring productivity (instead of only for getting feedback and distributing ideas), I would fear that it pays even more than with journals to write unsubstantiated papers with fancy ideas.
    For the wide availability issue: I prefer to read the final version of most papers, not one that will be changed in response to feedback. There is already more literature than one can thoroughly read anyways.

    Has anyone thought about how to separate these two fundamentally different purposes of preprints (pre-review vs. alternative publication type)? Which one do you think is the more important one?

  15. Hi Jochen – welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting! I can’t think of any major discussion of this off the top of my head, but I’m happy to share my thougths.

    1. I don’t think anyone (at least not anyone I know) is thinking of using the number of preprints someone has posted as a metric of their productivity. When folks talk about the potential for preprints to help early career scientists demonstrate productivity it is not as a number, but as something that can be read and evaluated. So, if I see a CV that lists 5 in prep or in review papers I have very little information, but if it has 5 preprints then I can go look at them and decide, based on their content, whether or not this is someone doing good exciting work. So, I totally agree that counting numbers of preprints as a measure of productivity is a bad idea, but I also don’t think anyone is doing it.

    2. With regards to precedence, I personally think that the first person who has posted a “correct” version of the idea/result in a public place deserves credit for the discovery. Whether a preprint, journal article, or blog post counts in this regard should depend on whether or not it is correct, not the specific manner in which the idea is made public.

    3. The question of whether or not to wait to read the final version of the paper is an interesting one, and I think it depends on how much you expect the final version to have changed from the preprint and how much you trust your abilities to evaluate the paper relative to that of the journal’s reviewers. The tradeoff with waiting is that it will typically take 1-2 years for the paper to be formally published, so if the work is good and important then one risks falling behind the cutting edge of the field by choosing to wait before reading about it. In economics and some areas of physics the importance of keeping up lead to preprints and “working papers” being the primary point of consumption of the literature. We’re definitely not there in ecology, but I’m definitely starting to see really exciting things coming out as preprints that I’m glad I haven’t waited to read.

    Overall, I’d say that both of the aspects of preprints that you lay out are important and valuable and I don’t personally feel that I need to choose between them so much as just think about their applications in a sufficiently nuanced way.

  16. Hi Ethan,

    thanks a lot for your response. You say it very well. If preprints are used in this thoughtful way, there is nothing to say against the multiple uses and advantages.

    I think that issues of precedence etc. are definitely different in ecology than in some other disciplines. I’m always surprised how many of the great “novel” ideas I already find in very old papers; it often seems the challenge is to have good data with appropriate analyses and to get towards a general picture.

    I’ve seen preprints and published papers that differed quite a lot. I would likely read preprints only if they may be important for what I’m currently working on. In other cases, I would prefer the stable, published version – but that’s also a matter of taste.

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