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Scientists consider whether sharing research results before peer review helps or hurts

by Shana Daloria | AirTalk®

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Nobel Laureate Carol Greider has published papers on her latest findings on a public access website called bioRxiv. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hashtag activism has hit the world of biology.

A growing number of biologists are using the hashtag #ASAPbio to promote "preprinting." That's the somewhat controversial practice of posting research results before they're published in peer review journals. 

Journals like "Science," "Nature," and "Cell" have long been the gatekeepers between researchers, their peers, and the public. But the often lengthy review periods and rigid publishing standards can keep new data out of public view. That, some say, can put younger scientists at a disadvantage. 

Several biologists — some Nobel Laureates among them — have taken to publishing papers on their latest findings on a public access website called bioRxiv prior to publication in established journals, once considered taboo among scientists.

Launched in 2013, the creators of bioRxiv intended their website to be a place biologists could follow the lead of physicists, who for years had been sharing their raw data online for free before seeking publication in a peer review journal.

“I’ve been concerned over the past several years that there’s been really some systemic flaws in the biomedical research enterprise," Johns Hopkins biology professor Carol Greider told KPCC.

Grieder, the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, said the practice of withholding data can have an impact on the field's newest practitioners. 

"It’s been very difficult for young people to get grants and to publish papers and the current system, the way it’s orchestrated really is leading to a number of young scientists just not going into the field, so we’ve been losing our best and our brightest.”

Last month Greider, other biologists, funders and representatives from various journals gathered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to attend an event also called ASAPbio to weigh the impact of preprints on the field. 

According to ASAPbio organizers, a consensus emerged at the meeting that preprints were beneficial for both “the public good as well as the individual scientist.”

“...A number of these journals, which have such a high reputation aren’t necessarily representing fair and across the board what is really the best science," Greider said.

"There are always, any time you have an elite class, people who know how to get into that elite class, and so it’s really is keeping down people who are trying to start out in the business by having such elitism, and by going to preprints where one can put the work out there and get comments on it and then later on publish it in a scientific journal for extensive peer review.”

But some critics of the preprint efforts worry that putting non-vetted data in the hands of  the public could have serious consequences.

“My concerns really are for clinical research — so research that’s closer to the bedside than to the bench — because once research gets out there, whether it’s on a preprint server or in a journal, it’s out there," said Christine Laine, editor in chief of the journal “Annals of Internal Medicine.’ "And if it’s the sort of research that doctors and patients are going to make clinical decisions on, I really think that there could be some risk in having non-vetted work out there.” 

Laine agreed that journals are not perfect and sometimes publish research that is later proven incorrect. Still, she still believes that the length of time required to vet scientific research adds value to the studies. 

“The formal review process at the journals is part of the scientific process," she said. "And where a piece of work gets published really does signify to the people who are reading that work something about the quality.”

Guests:

Carol Greider, Professor of Molecular Biology at Johns Hopkins University and Nobel Laureate

Christine Laine, MD, Editor in Chief of Annals of Internal Medicine and Senior Vice President of the American College of Physicians

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