In this arrangement, the publisher (PLOS) will perform the initial screening, which includes checking for plagiarism, previous publication, scope, ethical, and technical criteria before manuscripts are transferred to bioRxiv. The publisher maintains that this automatic transfer will accelerate the dissemination of the authors’ work and permit community peer review, which PLOS editors will incorporate into their own evaluation. Authors may opt-out of this service.
What came later in the press release was more alluring, and I should not attempt to paraphrase:
PLOS and CSHL also plan to work collaboratively towards solutions for preprint licensing that enable broad dissemination and reuse; the addition of badges to papers which signal that additional services for authors have been performed by PLOS and potentially other organizations; submission and screening standards in the biomedical sciences; and the implementation of new forms of manuscript assessment to augment or improve current methods of peer review.
Badges? Did someone ask for badges? It’s hard not to conjure a meme that existed long before the Internet. But, before someone gets overly excited and starts a gunfight, we need to clarify a few things, because the lack of details in the press release, bioRxiv, and PLOS websites, has created widespread confusion. Last week, Inside Higher Ed ran a story with the lead, “PLOS Pushes Publication Before Peer Review” — a claim that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So, what’s the truth? Let’s start with the facts.
Since January 2016, an author of a bioRxiv preprint could transfer his/her manuscript to a participating journal. bioRxiv calls this service “B2J” and lists a growing list of participating journals on its website. There is no mention of a transfer service that goes the other way (J2B), and yet, it has existed for the past two years, according to Richard Sever, Assistant Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Press and bioRxiv’s cofounder. J2B was briefly described on a Crossref webinar early last year (see time 40:20). The only other public mention I could find was a press release issued by eLife in March 2017. According to Sever, there are fourteen journals that transfer manuscripts to bioRxiv.
So, PLOS announcing that its authors would be able to post their manuscripts to bioRxiv is not news, unless news means following the crowd or showing up to the party late.
Now, what about those badges?
It is not unusual these days to make big, bold claims about disrupting scholarly communication. However, it is unusual when people with a long history in science publishing make big, bold claims but fail to provide any details. If there is anything that I’ve learned about scientific publishing, it’s that details matter.
By badges, PLOS and CSHL do not mean that a manuscript will arrive with a stamp that reads “Submitted to PLOS Biology” or “Under Peer Review at PLOS Biology“. Similarly, there will be no badge telling a reader that the manuscript was rejected by PLOS Biology and transferred to PLOS ONE. The preprint will look like every other preprint in the system. It will get assigned a bioRxiv DOI, not a PLOS DOI. From the standpoint of the reader, there is no way to tell how the manuscript got into bioRxiv.
As the arXiv taught us years ago, authors are not always conscientious about updating preprints.
Nonetheless, the manuscript transferred initially by PLOS to bioRxiv on behalf of its author may not resemble the paper that is eventually published. Between submission and final publication, there may be rounds of revisions to the manuscript that are not reflected in the original transferred document. While the publisher took responsibility screening the original submission, it takes no responsibility for the version that is left in the bioRxiv. Updating the preprint with a revision is completely up to the author, and, as the arXiv taught us years ago, authors are not always conscientious about updating preprints.
So what are these “badges”? Responding to my request for clarification, Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS wrote by email that “badging is to be developed later in partnership with bioRxiv and other stakeholders (including authors) so we don’t yet have details about how this will work.”
Still bewildered, Richard Sever at CSHL, referred me to a proposal to reinvent publishing in the digital age by Bodo Stern and Erin O’Shea on the ASAPbio website. ASAPbio is an advocacy group whose primary goal is promote the use of preprints in the life sciences. I should also note that the authors of the proposal are on the executive team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which is a primary backer of the journal eLife, which participates in B2J and J2B.
Stern and O’Shea propose that scientists abandon the journal publication model and adopt an author-driven publishing platform, similar to that used by F1000Research, where results become public first and evaluated later. The evaluation model operates entirely at the article level and relies upon tagging papers with various indicators that may represent their quality, rigor, scope, or performance. The term “badge” only comes up in the comment section as a suggestion from Richard Sever to use the term instead of “tag.”
Now decoded, the press release makes much more sense. PLOS is taking a step to support a post-journal publication platform where manuscripts become publicly available as preprints upon submission and where evaluation is largely conducted post-publication as a series of publisher-provided and community-supported “badges” that are sent to the preprint server over time.
The real outlaw in this story is bioRxiv, which has been taking steps from being a preprint server to becoming a publishing platform.
While this may sound like a radical position, PLOS is not far from this publication model already: 9 out of 10 PLOS papers are published in a megajournal where novelty, significance, or impact play no role as acceptance criteria. And, while other metrics-focused services have stolen their spotlight in recent years, I should remind readers that PLOS developed article-level metrics nine years ago specifically to support a narrative that it is the article (not the journal) that ultimately matters.
The real outlaw in this story is bioRxiv, which has been taking steps from being a preprint server to becoming a publishing platform. By incorporating post-publication validation badges into preprints, bioRxiv begins to transform itself into the largest open access megajournal the world has ever seen.