The Preprint Stink May Stick Now

The foul odor of something “off” about preprints has increased consistently since a big push around biomedical preprinting in conjunction with the spread of Covid-19. Even as advocates attempt to Febreze away the pungent scent coming off the open airing of scientific dirty laundry, more and more stink seeps out into the public sphere. And scientists, scientific publishers, and the culture they use to communicate are all looking like the culprits.

There are currently three preprint stories fouling the air:

  1. A preprint promoting the conspiracy theory that “74% of Covid-19 autopsy deaths were caused by the vaccine,” which I covered last week.
  2. A preprint disputing the validity of papers about microbiome-based cancer diagnostic testing published in Nature and Cell, but which the authors contend needs to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, yet cannot find a taker.
  3. A growing pile of preprints about room-temperature superconduction, some confirming claims in a preprint, some disputing or refuting them.

The psychological naïveté of advocates for the open airing of untested scientific claims and free-form disputes for all to see is remarkable. They seem to fail to realize that the small portion of the public who cares enough to even read about such things is rolling its collective eyes at the rolling nonsense and unseemly controversies. Not only do we have a “cold fusion” callback, but two medical stories that confuse and confound. Meanwhile, there isn’t a clear path to reconciling the disputes, finding accountability, or calming the waters.

While the occasional journal article can prove problematic and even provide fodder for conspiracists, these occur after all best efforts of experts and professionals devoted to preventing nonsense from reaching the public sphere. Preprints don’t even allow for this level of interrogation, improvement, and accountability before they go out, so it’s no wonder we have a higher yield of smelly garbage on top of a pile of unpublished rot.

The public is learning that our information management techniques are pretty laughable when it comes to preliminary claims, disputed claims, and potential fraud.

Perhaps, someday soon, the media will put 2 and 2 together, and realize that covering preprints also makes them look a little silly — like the meteorologists standing in the rain to tell you it’s raining. (Bless your heart, Jim Cantore, but we need to move on from your thundersnow.)

Talking about preprints in the public sphere is silly. It’s why a mature, considered, careful scientific culture made them local, discrete, and disposable. Our performative, permanent, and preening modern scientific culture has no such boundaries.

And it stinks.