Australian Science Faces Preprints

Preprint advocates decry peer review policies, and a well-worn drama ensues

Australian Science Faces Preprints

These days, online histrionics are commonplace. It seems reactions are a binary choice between acceptance and outrage, with outrage — much of it performative — becoming a tool of intimidation in many quarters, including scholarly publishing.

Recently, some applicants for funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) had their applications rejected because they cited preprints in them, which went against an explicit instruction on the application form itself to not cite preprints. The rule was established and communicated in 2020, and marked clearly on the application form.

Predictably, the usual suspects were quickly up in arms, striking the standard chords — end of days, mezzo soprano outrage, and so forth — across social media. Words like “devastating” and “outrageous” were being bandied about as if an arsonist had destroyed a family home. The number of applicants who successfully followed the instructions isn’t known, but clearly most were able to manage.

This Australian kerfuffle comes as more expert bodies are showing signs of weariness and wariness when it comes to preprints, especially in biomedicine. In addition to the ARC’s policy, I’ve been hearing via private communications about groups of physicians and health experts who are eschewing preprints in an attempt to hold the line for aspects of scientific reporting they value — editorial review, peer review, statistical review, professional editing, selectivity, relevance, accountability, and revision/refinement/clarification cycles.

But, of course, there are those who will have none of it, claiming without evidence that preprints “accelerate science,” as if science is a car with an accelerator fueled by publication events, with no need for claims to be evaluated by a careful process using qualified experts and professional, thorough approaches.

Predictably, a petition to get ARC to recognized preprints in grant applications has been started by ASAPBio, another play out of the dated playbook of the OA movement. As of this writing (Tuesday late ET), 59 signatures have been generated, with fewer than a handful coming from anyone with a clear connection with Australia. But two lawyers, the Product Director of Meta at CZI, and Heather Joseph of SPARC make appearances.

While veneration of government funding was used as a stance to elevate the importance of access issues, now rules about how to apply for it are being taken apart. It’s more of the self-serving approach emerging from career-stressed researchers and their advocates — understandable with too many trained researchers pursuing too little funding, but still unsavory and unhelpful in the largest sense of service to society. They should be working on expanding funding, not on lowering standards at the interface of science and society.

Preprints are currently allowed in research grant applications in many countries, so the ARC is in a minority position here. However, with their rule just made last year, it’s not clear they’re going to change their thinking on a whim.

It’s too soon to know where this is going, but this one feels a little more fraught than usual. There are growing concerns that preprints have become too profligate and problematic; that threats to the institutions that produce fully reviewed reports are being taken too lightly; and, that applications for research should still be based on results validated by the broader scientific community.

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Another dilemma facing the ARC is that Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council voted in June to begin allowing the citation of preprints in grant applications as of October 2021.

NHMRC touts the importance of peer review for its own process, making its stance on preprints look like a double standard — funders require expert intermediaries, but society doesn’t.

We don’t have evidence either way that researchers who preprint do better or worse when it comes to getting funded. It’s possible they do worse. What would advocates say if that were the case? Studies generally indicate that the size of publication lists in grants have no bearing on success rates, so this could all be meaningless posturing.

The politicization of publication policies has been a corrosive trend, and the NHMRC’s policy looks like an accommodation. The problem with accommodation is that it allows others to claim validation. This is what happened with bioRxiv and medRxiv, and some who initially accommodated these platforms are now regretful as to what has transpired, while others who held off are feeling vindicated.

Will the ARC draw a bright line? Will their decision sway the NHMRC back before October? Or will the ARC and NHMRC both allow the citation of preprints, signaling that while peer review is vital to their work, it’s not vital to the information that reaches society?

While assembling this post, I listened to an interview with John Carreyou on the “Pivot” podcast yesterday. Carreyou is writing a book about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, as well as producing a podcast as her fraud trial gets underway, examining the deals and court cases arising from her behaviors in peddling a diagnostic test that lacked evidence or plausibility, yet netted her millions in investor dollars. Carreyou thinks that the Silicon Valley ethos that has entered biomedicine is increasingly dangerous:

There are really stark, real-world consequences for adopting the software culture and applying it to medicine. . . . Silicon Valley was the computer industry, and increasingly we’re seeing Silicon Valley set its sites on other arenas such as self-driving [cars], drones, smart homes, and medicine. If entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley keep applying the “fake it ‘til you make it” — the software ethos — to these new arenas where lives are actually at stake — you think about that Uber car that ran over that woman a couple of years ago in Tempe, AZ — yeah, so there are some real-world consequences to what Silicon Valley is doing these days.

Preprint servers represent the deepest intrusion of “software culture” into science. CZI — using Facebook’s profits — is funding ASAPBio and bioRxiv, and has signed the petition mentioned above. If there is a stamp of Silicon Valley’s influence in biomedical publishing, this is it.

There are consequences to the insurrection-like road the techno-utopians — and those who accommodate them — are driving things down.

Will the ARC drive carefully and responsibly, or accommodate those who want everyone to take their hands off the publication wheel?

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