some thoughts on preprints for NAS Journals Summit

I was invited to be a discussion leader for a panel on Preprints: Challenges and Opportunities at the National Academy of Sciences Journals Summit, but a nor’eastern prevented me from attending. I am grateful to Diane Sullenberger, Executive Editor of PNAS for reading my remarks. Discussion leaders were asked to talk about preprints from their own perspectives, and to offer questions/thoughts for discussion. These are my remarks:

I wish I could use this weather situation as a way to claim preprints would prevent these sorts of storms, but the best I can assert is that a healthy, abundant, open, preprint culture might, and in some cases does, provide access to the research and information and data needed to make better predictions of extreme weather events like the nor’easter that is stranding me in Cambridge this week.

With apologies to whoever is reading this and has to awkwardly assume my identity for 5 minutes, my name is Chris Bourg and I’m the director of libraries at MIT. I’m also a sociologist, a member of the SocArXiv Steering Committee, and co-chair of the MIT Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT’s Research launched in July 2017.

My thoughts on pre-prints reflect all of those perspectives.

As a librarian, especially at one of an increasing number of universities with a strong Open Access policy and culture, pre-prints provide an important and powerful mechanism by which we facilitate the collection, dissemination, and preservation of our scholars’ intellectual output and our institution’s history and legacy. Preprints are part of the scholarly record and represent an important stage in an increasingly integrated research lifecycle.

As a sociologist and member of the SocArXiv steering committee, I would like to share my own experience posting my 2003 Stanford sociology dissertation on SocArXiv. I never officially published anything from my dissertation on the impacts of gender mistakes (now known as mis-gendering) on interpersonal interaction. So in the first dozen years since I wrote it, it was read by few, and cited only once. In the 18 months since I posted it on SocArXiv it has been downloaded well over 5000 times. Having a disciplinary preprint repository like SocArXiv allowed my dissertation to reach her readers, in a way that the Stanford Libraries and ProQuest’s paywalled dissertation collection simply didn’t.

The MIT perspective is also one that values preprints and preprint culture. Specifically, the current Open Access Task Force has as its charge to “lead an Institute-wide discussion of ways in which current MIT open access policies and practices might be updated or revised to further the Institute’s mission of disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.” While the Task Force is still in the early stages of developing our recommendations, and vetting them with the full MIT community, many of our discussions focus on the role of preprints. For the MIT faculty on the task force, they see preprints as a way to quickly and openly disseminate research, and they see that as consistent with MIT’s mission and with the goals of scholarly research.

Finally, as MIT has ramped up its commitment to advancing machine learning and artificial intelligence, some of our faculty are applying machine learning algorithms to the journal literature. For example, MIT Professor Elsa Olivetti and her colleagues have developed a machine learning system that analyzes research articles and extracts the materials recipes contained in those articles. In a world where research articles are used as data to be interrogated and analyzed, ensuring that preprints are available in open repositories becomes more important than getting research published and wrapped in the containers of traditional journals. One could argue that machine readers care more about content than about impact factor, or copyediting, or version of record, or many of the other advantages we tend to associate with final published articles.

The question I would offer for discussion is the question of the relative value and efficacy of preprints versus final published journal articles in an era of machine learning.

Below are answers I sent in response to anticipated questions:

  1. Are you saying that preprints should replace/kill journals?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? No, I don’t think preprints should kill journals, but I do think they should make them stronger. I think journals can add significant value to preprints, especially in putting sets of research articles and ideas into conversation with one another. I also think that journals reach certain (human) readers well, and will perform that function for some time. Good journals add value to the content in preprints – peer review, editorial input, reach to targeted audiences, etc.  Bad journal don’t add value to preprints, so I’m not sure it would be such a bad thing if a strong preprint culture leads to the demise of journals that aren’t adding value.

    1. What is the likelihood that MIT policies may evolve to not support journal publication?

None of the conversations I’ve been in with the MIT OA Task Force have included anything about recommending a move away from journals. Speaking personally, not for MIT, if we (we = academia) were to start a scholarly communications system from scratch, based on first principles, I’m not sure we would create journals – I’m even less certain that we would create journals published by commercial for-profit publishers. But as a sociologist, I’m well aware that the social structures – which include for-profit and not-for-profit journals — that have grown up over centuries to support scholarly communication are slow to change. The success of MIT Press in offering open options for books and journals has me optimistic about the role of university presses and other non-profit publishers in maintaining and advancing a healthy journal culture that complements a healthy preprint culture.


2 Responses to “some thoughts on preprints for NAS Journals Summit”

  1. 1 Eugene Owens March 29, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    “allowed my dissertation to reach her readers” nice turn of phrase there!
    (By the way, I was not able to sign in via twitter, some kind of error kept popping up)


  1. 1 Editors’ Choice: Some Thoughts on Preprints for NAS Journals Summit Trackback on March 29, 2018 at 9:01 am

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