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The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s


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In 1961, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to circulate biological preprints in a forgotten experiment called the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). This system eventually attracted over 3,600 participants and saw the production of over 2,500 different documents, but by 1967, it was effectively shut down following the refusal of journals to accept articles that had been circulated as preprints. This article charts the rise and fall of the IEGs and explores the parallels with the 1990s and the biomedical preprint movement of today.
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The prehistory of biology preprints:
A forgotten experiment from the 1960s
Matthew Cobb*
School of Biological Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
In 1961, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to circulate biological preprints in a for-
gotten experiment called the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). This system eventually
attracted over 3,600 participants and saw the production of over 2,500 different documents,
but by 1967, it was effectively shut down following the refusal of journals to accept articles
that had been circulated as preprints. This article charts the rise and fall of the IEGs and
explores the parallels with the 1990s and the biomedical preprint movement of today.
Since 1991, physicists and mathematicians have been using the arXiv preprint repository to
circulate articles and ideas, to the envy of many biologists. After a number of failed attempts,
including ClinMed Netprints (1999–2005) and Nature Precedings (2007–2012), 2 biology pre-
print servers were launched in 2013—PeerJ Preprints and bioRxiv (Cold Spring Harbor Labo-
ratory). Many journals will now consider an article that has appeared on a preprint server, and
grant-awarding bodies on both sides of the Atlantic allow preprints to be cited in grant and fel-
lowship applications—some, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, insist that their investiga-
tors deposit their papers as preprints. [1]
This is widely seen as an example of biology finally catching up with physics [2,3]—it
seems certain that the success of arXiv was influential in finally convincing journals to accept
biology preprints. In fact, biology first adopted large-scale circulation of preprints over half a
century ago, as part of a generalized interest in preprints that spanned much of science. From
1961–1967, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States pioneered a system
known as the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). The IEGs, forgotten except by a handful
of historians of documentation [4,5,6,7], have been the subject of only 1 investigation, pub-
lished as an unrefereed report in 1971 [8]. The IEGs have not been systematically studied by
science historians—not only is there no IEG archive, there is not even a record of the docu-
ments they produced. The IEGs eventually fell victim to a campaign by journals and learned
societies, who considered the organized circulation of preprints in both biology and physics to
be a threat to their financial interests and to their perceived status as guardians of scientific
integrity [9].
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 1 / 12
Citation: Cobb M (2017) The prehistory of biology
preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s.
PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003995.
Published: November 16, 2017
Copyright: ©2017 Matthew Cobb. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Funding: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory http://
brenner/sydney-brenner-scholarship. Sydney
Brenner Research Scholarship. The funder had no
role in study design, data collection and analysis,
decision to publish, or preparation of the
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
Abbreviations: AAI, American Association of
Immunologists; CERN, European Organization for
Nuclear Research; FASEB, Federation of American
Societies of Experimental Biology; IEGs,
Information Exchange Groups; NIH, National
Institutes of Health; NSF, National Science
Foundation; PIE, Physics Information Exchange;
SLAC, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
This article outlines the rise and fall of the IEGs and tells the cautionary tale of the ability of
scientific publishers and entrenched interests within the academic community to restrict the
sharing of knowledge.
Launching the IEGs
In 1961, Francis Crick received a letter from Errett C. Albritton, a 70-year-old administrator at
the NIH (Figs 1A and 2), inviting him to join an informal network for circulating preprints
called an IEG [10]. Crick gave Albritton the brush-off, saying he was ‘strongly opposed’ to the
scheme [11], even though he had spent much of the previous 6 years circulating his own infor-
mal papers in such a network called the RNA Tie Club [12]. ‘There is far too much careless
and rapid communication already in every area of this field of study’, Crick replied. ‘The idea
of increasing it even in this semi-public manner fills me with horror’. Albritton’s response was
good humoured (‘If it would not be a service to the area it needs a speedy burial!’ [13]), but
Crick’s hostility was not widely shared, and there were enough positive responses for the first
IEG to be set up shortly afterwards.
The IEG concept had been dreamt up in January 1961 by Albritton, along with 2 biochem-
ists—David Green (Fig 1B) of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Philip Handler of
Duke University [15]. Albritton later described the IEGs as an ‘experiment’ or a ‘natural his-
tory study’ that would enable researchers working on a tightly focused research area to send
‘any communication whatever’ (preprint, comment, discussion, etc.) to the NIH, where the
‘memo’ would be physically reproduced and then circulated by the postal service to all mem-
bers of the network. All costs were met by the NIH. Although the initial proposal was focused
on a slightly cliquey group of ‘leading investigators’ [16], IEG membership was soon broad-
ened to anyone ‘above the level of graduate student’, although the IEG chair had the final say
on who could join and become a ‘subscriber’ [17]. Although memos were not supposed to be
cited without permission, they could be taken as evidence of priority. The IEGs were intended
to increase informal communication between scientists and to avoid the delays imposed by
traditional publication methods. Albritton’s conception of the IEG was summarized by a brief
slogan that was included on the front cover of each memo: it was a ‘continuing international
congress by mail’ [15].
At one level, there was nothing new about circulating unrefereed documents or preprints.
Previous systems were generally linked to specific institutions, such as the MIT Research Labo-
ratory in Electronics that began producing unrefereed technical reports in 1946 [6] or the pre-
prints circulated by the Petroleum Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society from
1921 [18]. Other sets of unrefereed documents were tightly focused on the needs of a particular
research community, such as the Drosophila Information Service [19], or were collected and
sometimes distributed by institutional libraries, particularly in physics. Albritton’s NIH pro-
posal was far more ambitious. It involved systematically circulating copies of all submitted pre-
prints to a group of subscribers, rather than issuing them on request from an institution [20].
The scale of this experiment was immense, given the technology of the time: by the end of
1965, 3,663 researchers, from 46 different countries, were involved, and 2,561 different memos
had been physically mailed out, involving millions of pages of paper [8].
The first IEG was focused on oxidative phosphorylation and terminal electron transport. It
initially had only 32 members but grew to 386 within 4 years [8]. The IEG1 chair, David
Green, underlined the advantages of the system: ‘The exchange makes it possible for all of its
members to be fully informed in record time of all important developments in the field’ [21].
Other advantages included avoiding the danger of being ‘ambushed by some overzealous or
overopinionated reviewer’, thereby providing ‘an outlet for anyone who feels choked by
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 2 / 12
Provenance: Not commissioned; externally peer
editorial intransigence’ [22]. Green insisted that, despite the lack of review, the IEG memos
did not consist of a ‘flood of rubbish’; indeed, it was possible that informal review via the IEG
might lead to a reduction in the number of weaker articles submitted to journals.
In October 1963, Albritton began soliciting suggestions for more IEGs and approached
Sydney Brenner, Jacques Monod, and many others [23]. Like Crick 2 years earlier, Brenner
gave a negative response: ‘the informal contacts that already exist facilitate enough exchange of
information’, he wrote [24]. However, 5 new IEGs were soon created, covering Hemostasis
(IEG2), Computer Simulation of Biological Systems (IEG3), Molecular Basis of Muscle Con-
traction (IEG4), Immunopathology (IEG5), and Interferon (IEG6). IEG7, focused on Nucleic
Acids and the Genetic Code, was launched in early 1966 by Jim Watson and Marshall Niren-
berg. Over 1,100 scientists immediately signed up [8]. Crick’s hostility to the IEG project
diminished, and by October 1965, he was proposing Brenner and others as members of the
future IEG7, although he warned Albritton that having multiple copies of IEG documents
‘pouring into our laboratory is more than we can stomach’ [25]. Among the most significant
memos submitted to IEG7 was Francis Crick’s ‘wobble hypothesis’ explanation of codon–anti-
codon binding [26,27].
Overall, about 80% of the IEG memos were articles. Around one-third of these were circu-
lated after acceptance by a journal but before publication; the remainder were submitted to the
IEG before peer review and would be what we would now classify as preprints. There were also
technical notes and—occasionally—debates. Over one-third of IEG members were from out-
side the US (mainly from the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia), and over 90% of the
Fig 1. (A) Errett C. Albritton, MD (1890–1984), in 1948. Biographical information about Albritton is scant. For
much of his career he was Professor of Physiology at the George Washington University Medical School,
where he specialized in nutrition science. He later joined the NIH, where he worked in the Office of Research
Accomplishments. In 1961, aged 70, he became the cofounder of preprints in the biosciences. Credit:
Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library, George Washington University. (B) David E. Green, PhD (1910–1983),
in 1961. Green was a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, focusing on oxidative
phosphorylation. This was the topic of the first IEG, which he cocreated and described as ‘one of the most
revolutionary innovations in the history of science communication’ [9]. A biographical memoir described
Green as ‘one of the giants of 20th century biochemistry. . .a complex person who had an extraordinary
personality’. It makes no mention of his support for preprints [14]. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin–
Madison Archives (ID S14597). IEG, Information Exchange Group; NIH, National Institutes of Health.
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 3 / 12
memos were in English [8]. According to David Green, the system enabled researchers outside
the US, including some in communist countries, to be as clued up about recent developments
as their North American colleagues [9].
The publishers strike back
The 1960s marked a period of substantial growth in scientific publishing, in particular through
the activities of Pergamon Press, set up by the British businessman Robert Maxwell. The
Fig 2. Letter from Albritton to Crick, January 1961 [10]. Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archive.
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 4 / 12
number of journal titles published by Pergamon rose from 40 in 1959 to 150 in 1965; while
some were created as money-spinners, others were learned society journals that Pergamon
took over [28]. The financial model that now dominates scientific publishing, with large num-
bers of for-profit journals paid for by institutional library subscriptions, began at this moment
At this time, there were repeated discussions in the scientific community about the slowness
of publication and the need for more informal and automated methods of communication
[30], including a Ciba Foundation conference on the topic [31] and a report by the US Presi-
dent’s Scientific Advisory Committee [32]. Historians and librarians explored the conse-
quences of the IEG for collaboration [18,33], while an influential article in the Bulletin of the
Atomic Scientists argued that scientists in all fields should set up IEGs [34]. For several years,
the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) had collected preprints in high
energy physics from around the world, as had the library at the European Organization for
Nuclear Research (CERN). In 1965, the theoretical physicist Michael Moravcsik proposed for-
malizing these local initiatives, such that in each area of physics a central registry should collate
all preprints and then regularly send out a list of the items that had been received (something
like this was being operated at the Brookhaven National Laboratory) [35]. Within months,
Charles Gottschalk of the US Atomic Energy Commission proposed the creation of a Physics
Information Exchange (PIE). As Moravcsik explained in Physics Today, PIE was not
completely analogous to the IEGs but was close enough that ‘some comfort can be gathered
from the success IEG has encountered among biologists’ [36]. PIE would have a crucial cost-
cutting difference—a single copy of each preprint would be sent to participating libraries,
rather than to each individual member [36-37].
The growth of preprint circulation in all fields of science led some journal publishers—both
commercial companies and learned societies—to feel that their prestige in the scientific com-
munity and their finances could be menaced. The counteroffensive began in April 1966 at a
meeting of the American Association of Immunologists (AAI). Since 1916, the AAI had pub-
lished The Journal of Immunology, and it clearly felt threatened by the creation of IEG5
(Immunopathology) [38], which had gained over 600 members and had produced over 300
memos in little more than a year [8]. The AAI meeting claimed that the circulation of IEG
memos by the NIH was an ‘improper’ activity for a government agency, while the fact that
memos were in reality ‘complete publications’ meant that they posed ‘a real danger’ to immu-
nological journals and might ‘ultimately supersede them’. By a majority of 56 to 39, the AAI
meeting voted that the publication of articles that had been previously circulated by IEG5
‘should not be continued’ [38].
The massive growth in IEG membership (Fig 3) and the looming possibility of PIE, coupled
with the hostility of the AAI to the IEGs, prompted Nature to wade into the debate. It was not
that journal’s finest hour. In a series of articles and editorials in July and August 1966, includ-
ing the unapproved reproduction of one of Albritton’s documents [39], Nature attacked the
growth of the IEGs and the PIE proposal in sometimes sarcastic terms [40,41]. Nature’s first
target was PIE—a proposal the journal considered to be ‘so offensive’ that it hoped it would be
‘stillborn’. The opening of one editorial, particularly condescending and alarmist, revealed the
concern of the commercial publishers: ‘Next to downright villainy, misguided zeal is one of the
most dangerous forces in society,’ they wrote [40].
Next in Nature’s sights were the IEGs, which a few weeks later were attacked by the journal
as ‘suspect’ and a waste of money, as well as for being ‘in the publication business’ no matter
what the NIH might claim. The defects of preprints, thundered the journal, included ‘inacces-
sibility, impermanence, illiteracy, uneven quality, and lack of considered judgment’ [41]. The
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 5 / 12
traditional journal system had by contrast ‘encouraged thoroughness and measured judgment
[and] discouraged triviality and repetitive work’.
This claim that journals act as guarantors of scientific quality was a key part of Nature’s crit-
icism, as was the issue of priority. Nature was particularly irked by the fact that IEG members
agreed to treat the memos as priority-laden. As Albritton put it: ‘a paper sent through the IEG
is better protected than one published without prior circulation through the IEG’ [15]. Inevita-
bly, financial considerations were also to the fore. A fraction of the money lavished on circulat-
ing preprints, argued Nature, should be devoted to ‘helping the journals become more
efficient’. The for-profit journal was suggesting that the NIH should keep out of ‘the publica-
tion business’ and instead use that money to help commercial journals. The editorial closed
with the same tone it had used throughout its coverage: ‘If the National Institutes of Health are
as well-disposed towards the cause of effective publication as they seem to be, they could do a
lot to help. The energy they choose to dissipate in Dr Allbritton’s print shop will be a lot less
valuable’ [41].
A similarly aggressive attitude was adopted by the editor of Science. Philip H. Abelson sug-
gested the products of the IEGs could be seen as ‘government-subsidised shoddy merchandise’
and concluded that, while there was an understandable frustration with ‘the inefficiency of
many publications’, the IEGs also revealed ‘a desire on the part of some scientists to avoid a
discipline essential to the integrity of science’ [42].
The fate of the IEGs was sealed not by the leading gatekeepers of scientific publishing but
by a group of specialist journal editors. In September 1966, editors of leading biochemical jour-
nals met in Vienna to discuss the widespread circulation of preprints by the IEGs. There were
13 journals represented at the meeting, including the Journal of Chemical Biology and the Jour-
nal of Molecular Biology [43]. Like the AAI, this group decided—mostly without consulting
their societies or editorial boards [8]—that no article that had been circulated as an IEG memo
Fig 3. Growth of IEG1 1961–1965, as reported by Albritton [15]. Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Archive. IEG, Information Exchange Group.
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 6 / 12
would be accepted for publication. It is striking that these journals and those published by the
AAI overlapped with the 2 IEG areas that had the largest memberships: immunopathology
and molecular biology, which together represented nearly 2,000 researchers.
This decision was soon leaked to Nature—an editorial crowed ‘Preprints made outlaws’ and
praised the ‘firm. . .lethal steps’ the Vienna meeting of journal editors had taken against the
IEG system [44]. The editorialist was right: no one would submit a preprint to an IEG under
these conditions. Faced with the inevitable, the NIH caved in, and in November 1966, the head
of the NIH Division of Research Grants, Eugene Confrey, announced that the IEGs would be
closed the following March [45]. Albritton accepted that the IEGs were not financially viable
without external funding [15], and growth in the number of preprints meant the IEGs were
stretching the NIH’s financial and physical resources. Each copy of a memo cost $0.10–$0.50;
by 1967, the IEGs were projected to cost the NIH $400,000 per annum, or over $3 million in
today’s values [8,45].
Meanwhile, the letters pages of Science [46] and Nature [47,48] began to bulge with posi-
tions for and against IEGs. In Science, Philip Siekevitz, a cell biologist at Rockefeller University,
claimed that the IEGs were ‘a dangerous nuisance’, while Nature pointed out in a note that
although it had received 7 letters in support of the IEGs and only 1 against, Theodore Spaet,
the Chair of IEG2, had encouraged its members to write in.
After the IEGs had been killed off, Nature produced a slightly more considered editorial
entitled ‘Secret colleges end’ [49]. The journal recognized that there were problems of slowness
and rigidity in the traditional journal format but insisted that, if successful, the IEGs ‘would
have been an offence against scholarship’. The New England Journal of Medicine followed suit,
going so far as to praise the ‘morally sensitive scientists’ who had opposed the IEGs before fin-
ishing on a contradictory note by calling for the IEG idea to be taken up again once the lessons
had been learned [50]. The journal’s real position on preprints was made clear 2 years later,
when it stated it would not accept any articles that had been previously published, including by
‘controlled-circulation journals’ [51]. Strict application of this principle, known as the Ingelfin-
ger Rule after the journal’s editor and initially focused on preprints and media coverage, was
subsequently extended to prevent the journal from publishing material that had appeared on
any kind of website [52].
The PIE proposals met a similar fate. They were vigorously opposed by Simon Pasternack,
the editor of The Physical Review, who described the project as ‘a great disservice’ [53]. Paster-
nack denied that PIE would be any quicker than traditional publication routes and predicted it
would ‘dilute orderly communication and add confusion’. Going into rhetorical overdrive,
Pasternack claimed PIE threatened physics research communication with ‘obscurity, incom-
pleteness, polemics, inadequate references, discursiveness and irresponsibility’. Samuel Gouds-
mit, the editor of Physical Review Letters, joined in, producing a series of editorials in which he
described a centralized register of preprints as ‘highly undesirable, as it would raise the unrefer-
eed and unedited preprint to virtually the same status as a formal publication’ [54], emphasised
the value provided by journals and peer review [55], and argued against citing preprints [56].
PIE was not stillborn as Pasternack and Nature wished, but it was instead launched for a
trial year, functioning primarily as an announcement service of new preprints and discussion
documents that was circulated to a mailing list; anyone interested had to request the document
directly from the author.
After the IEGs
After minor pushback [57] and some policy discussion of the significance of the experiment
[31], most of the IEGs immediately folded. Albritton had hoped that because many IEG
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 7 / 12
members—and even some IEG Chairs—were also Editors or Associate Editors of journals
(including the Journal of Molecular Biology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry), peaceful
coexistence with traditional journals would be possible [15]. This turned out to be naive. The
power of the Vienna editors’ meeting and of the AAI, coupled with the hostility of Science and
Nature and the financial strain on the NIH, stopped the IEGs in their tracks. Only IEG6
decided to keep going, after a 93% positive vote of its members. The 250-strong group contin-
ued to circulate material until at least the late 1970s under the title Interferon Scientific Memo-
randum. To reduce costs, their memos were restricted to 8 pages and distributed as reduced-
size photos, with the support of the American Institute of Biological Sciences [58].
The perception of the IEGs by those who had been involved was overwhelmingly positive.
Professor Michael Woodruff of the University of Edinburgh chided Nature for its ‘timid’ atti-
tude; he found his membership of IEG5 to be of ‘enormous value’ and was ‘most delighted’
with reading and writing memos [59]. Surveys of IEG members showed 94% of the respon-
dents said reading a memo had positively influenced a research decision, while 68% considered
that the memos had saved time and money [8]. However, in most cases, the key memos were
articles that eventually appeared in print; although the IEGs increased the rapidity and effi-
ciency of communication, there was no evidence that it led to greater debate, one of the Albrit-
ton’s key objectives. In this respect, the IEGs failed.
Unbowed, Albritton’s colleagues at the NIH continued to emphasize the value of preprints
[20]. In an understandably embittered article reviewing the rise and fall of the IEGs, David
Green, the chair of IEG1 and cocreator of the scheme, decried the ‘strangulation’ of what he
considered to be ‘one of the most revolutionary innovations in the history of science commu-
nication’ [9]. After dismissing the 3 criticisms leveled at the IEGs by the Vienna meeting and
by Science and Nature (duplication, copyright infringement, and potential misunderstandings
from lack of review), Green explained why the IEGs had really been killed off:
It is my opinion that the stated reasons are not the real reason. Rather, the stated reasons
merely hide the fact that the editors were apprehensive that the status and prestige of the
journals would be downgraded if another agency (IEG) were distributing to its members,
from 6 months to a year earlier than the journals, the very papers which would eventually
appear in the journals, though not necessarily in the same final form.
Nature’s final statement on the affair, made in February 1967, suggested that preprints
should be renamed ‘impersonal communication’ or ‘postal circular’ and reiterated the ‘offense’
the IEGs had given to the established journals because of the claimed potential of duplicate
publications. However, the editorialist was also keen to turn his article into an advert, reassur-
ing his readers that the rapid circulation that was so attractive a feature of the IEGs would soon
be found at Nature, which in a few months would ‘be operating consistently with a time lag of
a few weeks’. The aim was for Nature to ‘beat the IEG at their own game’ [60].
Debate about how to enable more rapid communication of scientific discoveries in all fields
continued into the 1970s [61,62]. The solution was finally found in physics, which already had
established and successful local networks for collecting and distributing preprints. In January
1969, a new service, Preprints in Particles and Fields, was run out of SLAC. It built on the pre-
print services run by Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley and the SLAC library and
drew lessons from the fate of PIE and the IEGs [63]. Within a year, there were around 1,600
subscribers, showing the appetite for preprint circulation.
Over the next 2 decades, publishing was transformed as rapid progress in information tech-
nology enabled the development of increasingly rich and cost-effective schemes for circulating
information. In 1991, Paul Ginsparg at the Los Alamos National Laboratory created an
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 8 / 12
automated email server for distributing preprints, a system that eventually became known as
arXiv [64]. In subsequent years, the impact of the World Wide Web, which was launched at
virtually the same time as arXiv, transformed global communication and publishing, including
the circulation of preprints. Initially set up for high energy physics, arXiv gradually extended
into other fields and was soon partly supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) funding
[3,4]. The concerns of a number of scientific societies and publishers were placated by the
gradual growth of the system and the evident fact that it did not damage journal prestige or
finances [5].
Life science researchers, who had either forgotten the IEG affair or never knew of it, could
not help but notice the growth of arXiv. In 1999, Harold Varmus, in his final months as head
of the NIH, became what he later described as a ‘radical proponent’ of new ways of circulating
scientific information [65]. After informal discussions with leading biomedical scientists, Var-
mus proposed the creation of e-Biomed, an electronic repository of preprints that was clearly
modelled on arXiv [52,65]. Varmus opened a consultation on his proposal and received over-
whelming support from the individual scientists who responded to his call, but the journal
publishers were deeply hostile and lobbied extensively against his scheme [65].
An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine warned of ‘a potential threat to the
evaluation and orderly dissemination of new clinical studies’—the journal was concerned that
potentially incorrect clinical papers would gain the imprimatur of the NIH’s authority and
could have significant negative consequences for patient health and well-being (this remains a
worry for medical preprints) [66]. But the journal also revealed that one of its major concerns
was the ‘probably disastrous effects’ on the paid circulation of journals. The Federation of
American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB), a powerful umbrella group of learned
societies, even threatened to use their lobbying power in Congress to affect the NIH budget
should the e-Biomed proposal go ahead [52].
Within 4 months, the project was dead in the water. Varmus accepted that his vision could
not be fully realized in the face of such opposition and focused instead on open access provi-
sion of accepted manuscripts through PubMed Central. This development, together with the
legacy of the e-Biomed initiative, played a role in the development of the open access move-
ment and the launching of PLOS by Varmus, Pat Brown, and Michael Eisen [65]. Nevertheless,
it would be another decade and a half before biologists, their funders, and their editors
accepted what had become commonplace in most parts of physics.
A third attempt in over 50 years to introduce preprints into biology occurred in 2013 with
the launch of PeerJ Preprints and bioRxiv, following a series of initiatives by Ron Vale and oth-
ers [1,2]. This time around, there appears to have been a shift in opinion amongst funders and
publishers of biomedical research—there has not been the kind of hostility that appeared in
the 1960s and 1990s.
This apparent change in attitude has yet to be systematically analysed, but here are some
potential explanations, which are not mutually exclusive:
The interval from submission to the first journal to final publication (perhaps in another
journal) can be of the order of many months, similar to that in the 1960s. Coupled with the
short duration of postdoctoral posts and the increasingly rapid development of technology,
this has led to growing frustration with the ‘glacial pace’ of publication and a determination
on the part of researchers to find a better solution [67].
The new biological preprint servers have made clear that they are not encroaching on journal
territory or finances but simply decoupling first dissemination of knowledge from the ‘certi-
fication’ that is represented by peer review.
PLOS Biology | November 16, 2017 9 / 12
The widespread adoption of open access publishing and the free circulation of data and
ideas may make opposing preprints simply look churlish in the age of the Internet and the
success of arXiv.
Finally, despite initiatives such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment
[68], many key decisions affecting the lives of scientists—recruitment, promotion, and fund-
ing—continue to be based on the titles of the journals we publish in, rather than a direct esti-
mation of the quality of the research we produce. In such a world, the journal will not go
extinct—indeed, journals can make money by charging for open access, and can scout out
promising papers on the preprint servers.
Whatever the case, on the third attempt, it appears that a culture of preprints has been
established in the biosciences, although not yet in medicine. The fate of the IEGs should warn
us of the power of commercial publishers and of vested academic interests to restrict the free
circulation of knowledge.
The digital culture we now live in is far beyond the dreams of Errett C. Albritton and his
printed and stapled IEG memos, individually sent out in the mail to eager subscribers. But he
envisioned the importance of the open circulation of knowledge and debate over half a century
ago. His name and his ambitions may have been forgotten, but he would recognize our world.
Stephen Curry and Leslie Vosshall are thanked for their comments and encouragement. The
manuscript initially appeared as a preprint on The preprint was featured in a Sci-
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which led to the sections on physics being nuanced and much improved. Comparison of the
preprint and the published version reveals the virtues of peer review.
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... As a researcher in Drosophila genetics, I am not aware of any instance of misuse resulting from the free sharing of new findings and information about new resources during the nearly 90 years of DIS publication. Information Exchange Groups initiated by the National Institutes of Health (USA) in 1961 for circulating biological preprints were shut down in 1967 because established journals, including Nature, Science, and others, felt threatened and refused to publish material already shared as preprints [66]. The arXiv preprints repository is popular in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, etc. since 1991 [67]. ...
... The and ResearchGate network platforms, which allow sharing of research output at any stage, started in 2008 [18]. During the past decade, many preprint servers have been launched, with their popularity increasing exponentially across the globe [18,[66][67][68]. Interestingly, unlike the hostility shown by established journals to the Information Exchange Groups and other similar efforts in the 1960s, most publishers now permit the submission of articles posted at preprint servers for publication in their journals and many funding agencies also consider preprints for assessment [66]; also see and chapters in section J of this book. ...
... During the past decade, many preprint servers have been launched, with their popularity increasing exponentially across the globe [18,[66][67][68]. Interestingly, unlike the hostility shown by established journals to the Information Exchange Groups and other similar efforts in the 1960s, most publishers now permit the submission of articles posted at preprint servers for publication in their journals and many funding agencies also consider preprints for assessment [66]; also see and chapters in section J of this book. ...
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Research is an outcome of innate human inquisitiveness and the self-driven efforts to know the unknown. The new knowledge and technology generated through research are essential for societal development and progress. In order to achieve sustainable development, research and communication of its output must be rooted in integrity and appropriate ethical conduct on part of all the stake-holders. Research communication involves authors, peer-reviewers, editors, publishers and readers. This chapter considers the various ethical norms developed by the research community itself for all those involved in research communication, and reasons for the misconducts commonly encountered in dissemination of research output. In order to minimize misconduct, it is necessary that research communication does not remain a 'for-profit' commercial activity and the assessment of researchers and their institutions is based, instead of on where the research output is published, on what is published. Good quality and useful research that promotes societal welfare needs passion rather than fashion or compulsion.
... The dissemination of preprints in biomedical science dates back to the 1960's (see Cobb, 2017), but the COVID-19 literature features preprints to an unprecedented degree (Fraser et al., 2021;Johansson et al., 2018). Preprints allow for rapid dissemination of vital research results, particularly for time-sensitive issues such as COVID-19. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought substantial attention to the systems used to communicate biomedical research. In particular, the need to rapidly and credibly communicate research findings has led many stakeholders to encourage researchers to adopt open science practices such as posting preprints and sharing data. To examine the degree to which this has led to the adoption of such practices, we examined the “openness” of a sample of 539 published papers describing the results of randomized controlled trials testing interventions to prevent or treat COVID-19. The majority (56%) of the papers in this sample were free to read at the time of our investigation and 23.56% were preceded by preprints. However, there is no guarantee that the papers without an open license will be available without a subscription in the future, and only 49.61% of the preprints we identified were linked to the subsequent peer-reviewed version. Of the 331 papers in our sample with statements identifying if (and how) related datasets were available, only a paucity indicated that data was available in a repository that facilitates rapid verification and reuse. Our results demonstrate that, while progress has been made, there is still a significant mismatch between aspiration and the practice of open science in an important area of the COVID-19 literature. Open Materials We are committed to making the details of our research process as open as possible. The data and code that underlie our analyses are archived and published through the Dryad Data Repository ( ). Documentation and instructions for manuscript screening and data extraction are available on ( ). Author contributions are outlined in Supplementary Table 1.
... The IEGs ended up growing into seven different groups with a membership of more than 3600 participants and distributed over 2500 documents. However, by 1967 the IEGs were abandoned after several journal publishers refused to accept articles circulated as preprints (Cobb, 2017). Physicists experimented with similar models, and in 1991, arXiv was founded as a repository for manuscripts in the physical sciences (ArXiv, 2021). ...
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The use of preprints, research manuscripts shared publicly before completing the traditional peer-review process, is becoming a more common practice among life science researchers. Early-career researchers (ECRs) benefit from posting preprints as they are shareable, citable, and prove productivity. However, preprinting a manuscript involves a discussion among all co-authors, and ECRs are often not the decision-makers. Therefore, ECRs may find themselves in situations where they are interested in depositing a preprint but are unsure how to approach their co-authors or advisor about preprinting. Leveraging our own experiences as ECRs, and feedback from the research community, we have constructed a guide for ECRs who are considering preprinting to enable them to take ownership over the process and to raise awareness about preprinting options. We hope that this guide helps ECRs to initiate conversations about preprinting with co-authors and encourage them to preprint their future research.
... The practice of submitting scientific articles for prior review dates back to the 1960s, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, sent draft manuscripts for consideration by groups of biologists, in an experiment called the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs) 19 . The first initiative for a repository like the current ones appeared in 1991, with arXiv, a non-profit server for physicists at Cornell University, which is still widely used by researchers in the field of exact sciences. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of science. Many scientific data are published on preprint repositories, prior to peer review, which raises questions about the credibility of the information not yet validated by other scientists. In this study, we analysed 76 stories published from January to July 2020 by three newspapers [The New York Times (USA), The Guardian (UK) and Folha de S. Paulo (Brazil)], having as topic studies on COVID-19 published on preprint platforms. The objective was to analyse how the media covered non-peer-reviewed research, in countries marked by conflicting discourses prompted by the denialist attitude of their government leaders. The results show that the newspapers did not provide a detailed explanation of what a preprint platform is, how the process of publishing research results works, and the implications of a study that has not yet been peer reviewed. The analysis also reveals how these news outlets were guided by the anxiety from an unknown disease, focusing on research on drug trials and seroprevalence. The study leads us to reflect on the challenges and weaknesses of covering fast science and the need to broaden the public’s understanding of the methods and processes of science.
... Although scientific journals became the primary method of communication, they added high maintenance costs and long publication times to scientific discourse [2,3]. Some scientists' solutions to these issues have been to communicate through preprints, which are scholarly works that have yet to undergo peer review process [4,5]. Preprints are commonly hosted on online repositories, where users have open and easy access to these works. ...
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Preprints allow researchers to make their findings available to the scientific community before they have undergone peer review. Studies on preprints within bioRxiv have been largely focused on article metadata and how often these preprints are downloaded, cited, published, and discussed online. A missing element that has yet to be examined is the language contained within the bioRxiv preprint repository. We sought to compare and contrast linguistic features within bioRxiv preprints to published biomedical text as a whole as this is an excellent opportunity to examine how peer review changes these documents. The most prevalent features that changed appear to be associated with typesetting and mentions of supporting information sections or additional files. In addition to text comparison, we created document embeddings derived from a preprint-trained word2vec model. We found that these embeddings are able to parse out different scientific approaches and concepts, link unannotated preprint-peer-reviewed article pairs, and identify journals that publish linguistically similar papers to a given preprint. We also used these embeddings to examine factors associated with the time elapsed between the posting of a first preprint and the appearance of a peer-reviewed publication. We found that preprints with more versions posted and more textual changes took longer to publish. Lastly, we constructed a web application ( that allows users to identify which journals and articles that are most linguistically similar to a bioRxiv or medRxiv preprint as well as observe where the preprint would be positioned within a published article landscape.
... As an alternative or as a supplement to publishing in peer-reviewed journals, preprinting is clearly an additional option for rapid scientific communication. This practice of presenting scientific/scholarly papers to the scientific community before they are published in peer-reviewed journals dates back to the seventeenth century (Cobb, 2017). Modern attempts to create platforms for sharing unpublished works were at first heavily criticized, but nowadays preprinting is a standard practice in many scientific fields (Berg et al., 2016;Four Years of Information Exchange, 1966;Pasternack, 1966;Woodruff, 1966). ...
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COVID-19-related (vs. non-related) articles appear to be more expeditiously processed and published in peer-reviewed journals. We aimed to evaluate: (i) whether COVID-19-related preprints were favored for publication, (ii) preprinting trends and public discussion of the preprints, and (iii) the relationship between the publication topic (COVID-19-related or not) and quality issues. Manuscripts deposited at bioRxiv and medRxiv between January 1 and September 27 2020 were assessed for the probability of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and those published were evaluated for submission-to-acceptance time. The extent of public discussion was assessed based on Altmetric and Disqus data. The Retraction Watch Database and PubMed were used to explore the retraction of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 articles and preprints. With adjustment for the preprinting server and number of deposited versions, COVID-19-related preprints were more likely to be published within 120 days since the deposition of the first version (OR = 1.96, 95% CI: 1.80-2.14) as well as over the entire observed period (OR = 1.39, 95% CI: 1.31-1.48). Submission-to-acceptance was by 35.85 days (95% CI: 32.25-39.45) shorter for COVID-19 articles. Public discussion of preprints was modest and COVID-19 articles were overrepresented in the pool of retracted articles in 2020. Current data suggest a preference for publication of COVID-19-related preprints over the observed period. Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s11192-021-04249-7.
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Introduction: Preprints have been increasingly used in biomedical sciences, providing the opportunity for research to be publicly assessed before journal publication. With the increase in attention over preprints during the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to assess the content of comments left on preprint platforms. Methods: Preprints posted on bioRxiv and medRxiv in 2020 were accessed through each platform's API, and a random sample of preprints that had received between 1 and 20 comments was analyzed. Comments were evaluated in triplicate by independent evaluators using an instrument that assessed their features and general content. Results: 7.3% of preprints received at least 1 comment during a mean follow-up of 7.5 months. Analyzed comments had a median size of 43 words. Criticisms, corrections or suggestions were the most prevalent type of content, followed by compliments or positive appraisals and questions. Most critical comments regarded interpretation, data collection and methodological design, while compliments were usually about relevance and implications. Conclusions: Only a small percentage of preprints posted in 2020 in bioRxiv and medRxiv received comments in these platforms. When present, however, these comments address content that is similar to that analyzed by traditional peer review. A more precise taxonomy of peer review functions would be desirable to describe whether post-publication peer review fulfills these roles.
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Since 2013, the usage of preprints as a means of sharing research in biology has rapidly grown, in particular via the preprint server bioRxiv. Recent studies have found that journal articles that were previously posted to bioRxiv received a higher number of citations or mentions/shares on other online platforms compared to articles in the same journals that were not posted. However, the exact causal mechanism for this effect has not been established, and may in part be related to authors’ biases in the selection of articles that are chosen to be posted as preprints. We aimed to investigate this mechanism by conducting a mixed-methods survey of 1,444 authors of bioRxiv preprints, to investigate the reasons that they post or do not post certain articles as preprints, and to make comparisons between articles they choose to post and not post as preprints. We find that authors are most strongly motivated to post preprints to increase awareness of their work and increase the speed of its dissemination; conversely, the strongest reasons for not posting preprints centre around a lack of awareness of preprints and reluctance to publicly post work that has not undergone a peer review process. We additionally find evidence that authors do not consider quality, novelty or significance when posting or not posting research as preprints, however, authors retain an expectation that articles they post as preprints will receive more citations or be shared more widely online than articles not posted.
Background: Preprints are publicly available manuscripts posted to various servers that have not been peer-reviewed. Although preprints have existed since 1961, they have gained increased popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the need for immediate, relevant information. Objective: The aim of this study is to evaluate the publication rate and impact of preprints included in the CDC COVID-19 Science Update and assess the performance of the COVID-19 Science Update team in selecting impactful preprints. Methods: All preprints in the first 100 editions (April 1, 2020 - July 30, 2021) of the Science Update were included in the study. Preprints that were not published were categorized as "unpublished preprints". Preprints that were subsequently published exist in two versions (in a peer-reviewed journal and on the original preprint server) which were analyzed separately and referred to as "peer-reviewed preprint" and "original preprint", respectively. Time-to-publish was the time interval between the date on which a preprint was first posted to the date on which it was first available as a peer-reviewed article. Impact was quantified by Altmetric Attention Score and citation count for all available manuscripts on August 6, 2021. Preprints were analyzed by publication status, rate, and time to publication. Results: Among 275 preprints included in the CDC COVID-19 Science Update during the study period, most came from three servers: medRxiv (n=201), bioRxiv (n=41), and SSRN (n=25), with eight coming from other sources. More than half (152 of 275, 55.3%) were eventually published. The median time-to-publish was 2.31 months (IQR 1.38-3.73). When preprints posted in the last 2.31 months were excluded (to account for the time-to-publish), the publication rate was to 67.8%. Seventy-six journals published at least one preprint from the CDC COVID-19 Science Update and 18 journals published at least three. The median Altmetric Attention Score for unpublished preprints (n=123) was 146 (IQR 22-552) and median citation count of 2 (IQR 0-8); for original preprints (n=152) these values were 212 (IQR 22-1164) and 14 (IQR 2-40), respectively; for peer-review preprints, these values were 265 (IQR 29-1896) 19 (IQR 3-101), respectively. Conclusions: Prior studies of COVID-19 preprints found publication rates between 5.4% and 21.1%. Preprints included in the CDC COVID-19 Science Update were published at a higher rate than overall COVID-19 preprints, and those that were ultimately published were published within months and received higher attention scores than unpublished preprints. These findings indicate that the Science Update process for selecting preprints appears have done so with high fidelity in terms of their likelihood to be published and impactful. Incorporation of high-quality preprints into the CDC COVID-19 Science Update improves this activity's capacity to inform meaningful public health decision making.
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The purpose of this paper is to provide a timeline of the gradual organization of preprint sharing of traditional research articles and its consolidation as the preferred means of connection among scientists engaged at the forefront of increasingly narrower sub-specialties that emerged after World War II. At mid-century, the flood of research that scientific journals faced created a burden on the traditional system of publication. The social dynamics involved in the production of high energy physics research, in particular, proved to be the main arena of scientific communication that contributed to the advent of preprint exchange as an alternate system of publication during the 20th century. Increasing sophistication of information and communication technology relative to cost and convenience of use were factors that ultimately led to the online deployment of arχiv in 1991. The history of preprint sharing in scientific publishing is a relatively unexplored area of study, and subserves the larger need to understand the immediate circumstances surrounding the move to digital publication by scientific journals. In particular, the challenge presented by preprint sharing to the formal system of peer review that print journals have traditionally offered was an over-riding concern throughout the course of the changes described here.
Biologists are posting unreviewed papers in record numbers. Here's a survival guide.
Twenty-five years ago, in August 1991, I spent a couple of afternoons at Los Alamos National Laboratory writing some simple software that enabled a small group of physicists to share drafts of their articles via automated email transactions with a central repository. Within a few years, the site migrated to the nascent WorldWideWeb as, and experienced both expansion in coverage and heavy growth in usage that continues to this day. In 1998, I gave a talk to a group of biologists-including David Lipman, Pat Brown, and Michael Eisen-at a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) to describe the sharing of articles "pre-publication" by physicists. The talk was met with some enthusiasm and prompted the "e-biomed" proposal in the following spring by then NIH director Harold Varmus. He encouraged the creation of an NIH-run electronic archive for all biomedical research articles, including both a preprint server and an archive of published peer-reviewed articles, which generated significant discussion.
THE PHYSICS INFORMATION EXCHANGE (PIE) is a program, currently under active discussion, that aims at improving communications within high‐energy theoretical physics. The program was proposed in September 1965 by Charles Gottschalk of the technical information division of the US Atomic Energy Commission, and I like to believe that an article of mine in PHYSICS TODAY (“Private and Public Communications in Physics,” March 1965) might have in part stimulated the proposal. The idea is by no means new, however; it has been tossed around among active researchers in high‐energy physics for many years. Pro: Physics Information Exchange—A Communication Experiment
Scientific publications enable results and ideas to be transmitted throughout the scientific community. The number and type of journal publications also have become the primary criteria used in evaluating career advancement. Our analysis suggests that publication practices have changed considerably in the life sciences over the past thirty years. More experimental data is now required for publication, and the average time required for graduate students to publish their first paper has increased and is approaching the desirable duration of Ph.D. training. Since publication is generally a requirement for career progression, schemes to reduce the time of graduate student and postdoctoral training may be difficult to implement without also considering new mechanisms for accelerating communication of their work. The increasing time to publication also delays potential catalytic effects that ensue when many scientists have access to new information. The time has come for life scientists, funding agencies, and publishers to discuss how to communicate new findings in a way that best serves the interests of the public and the scientific community.
Nature is the international weekly journal of science: a magazine style journal that publishes full-length research papers in all disciplines of science, as well as News and Views, reviews, news, features, commentaries, web focuses and more, covering all branches of science and how science impacts upon all aspects of society and life.
I AM CONVINCED that the Physics Information Exchange (PIE) proposed by Moravcsik constitutes a serious threat to physics communication and to the physics research community. In the name of improved physics communication it would undertake to distribute an unedited, unrefereed, uncontrolled collection of documents many times larger than any physics journal. It would have a blanket exemption from the regulations of the physics journals, from the real needs of research physicists, from economic reality and from the integrity of the English language. Con: Criticism of the Proposed Physics Information Exchange