Friday, May 17, 2013

An SMBE member's request to update our Society's preprint policy

I just submitted this letter:

Dear Editors-in-chiefs and SMBE Council,

As a member of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, I am writing to request that the Society Council and Editors of its journals please consider moving quickly to adopt a preprint-friendly policy at MBE and GBE.

I joined the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in 2007, just before attending my first SMBE meeting. It was fantastic! A group of grad students piled in a van and took turns driving the 17 hours through beautiful landscapes to beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia. I remember being completely overwhelmed with the quality and quantity of science presented at the meeting.

Since then I have attended most SMBE meetings, co-organized a symposium, helped to publicize those meetings and presentations, and am very excited to have recently published a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution. I have always been impressed with the the activities of the Society, and plan to continue being an active member throughout my scientific career.

However, as a new investigator, and one who has already submitted to the arXiv, I was surprised to hear, from various sources, that neither MBE nor GBE will consider publishing papers that have been submitted to the arXiv. I thought that surely this cannot be true. Following good scientific procedure, I decided to investigate for myself, going to the source (since nothing regarding prepints currently exists online at the MBE or GBE websites). Yesterday I received this very kind response from Elizabeth Raffaele (emphasis mine):
Dear Melissa 
I had to check this out with the Editor in Chief as I want sure of the answer. 
He has advised that current policy at both MBE and GBE prohibits arXiv distribution prior to publication. New arXiv-friendly policies are under consideration and will be implemented in the near future. So, authors should take a conservative approach for now, and not post it on arXiv. 
I hope this is helpful. 
Best wishes
I very much appreciate the prompt and careful response (many thanks to Elizabeth). But, as a Society member, and someone who highly values the research published in MBE and GBE, I am completely disappointed with it.

The arXiv is a pre-print server that allows scientists to connect with their peers, share information, and gain critical feedback on manuscripts. I have found that submitting papers to the arXiv is a fantastic way to increase interest in research, share current results, and promote discussion. However, the arXiv is not a peer-reviewed resource. Unlike mathematics and physics, where often the arXiv is the final submission for papers, in Biology, I think the benefits of peer review are unparalleled. The arXiv does not replace peer review. The editors and volunteer reviewers of MBE and GBE provide an invaluable service to the scientific community. I am proud to be part of a Society whose journals are known for publishing high quality research. I can think of no reason that preprints should be excluded from consideration for publication at MBE and GBE. If anything, preprints will allow extra scrutiny, and extra advertisement, for articles that pass peer-review, and are published in MBE or GBE.

I  hope that you will please consider the benefits of allowing submissions to MBE and GBE of articles that have also been uploaded to preprint servers.

Thank you very much for considering this request.


Melissa A. Wilson Sayres, PhD
Miller Fellow
University of California, Berkeley

I just got an update @11:42AM that it is on the Agenda to be discussed at the SMBE Meeting in Chicago. I am very excited (nervous?) to see what is decided.


msomel said...

Very good point, thanks Melissa!

mathbionerd said...

Thanks! I'm actually really excited to learn more about it. I don't know much about how journals work, but I can imagine that the arXiv might seem like a threat. It isn't, but it might seem that way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Melissa -

Thanks for taking the time to write a clear case for SMBE to allow authors to submit preprints to arXiv and make this public. I fully agree with your proposal that SMBE should make this policy change.

I'd like to add that the SMBE council should consider the fact that competitor journals (PLOS Genetics, PLOS ONE, Genetics, G3, NAR) all allow authors to deposit preprints on arXiv, and if MBE/GBE do not move to adopt a more friendly preprint policy, they may lose market share among many evolutionary geneticists.

Yours sincerely,
Casey Bergman

mathbionerd said...

Dear Casey,

Thank you.

You make a very good point. In addition to competitor journals, the "top tier", pay-for-access journals (Science, Nature, PNAS) allow preprints. I just found a 1999 report from PNAS ( that addresses this:

"Preprints have a long and notable history in science, and it has been PNAS policy that they do not constitute prior publication. This is true whether an author hands copies of a manuscript to a few trusted colleagues or puts it on a publicly accessible web site for everyone to read, as is common now in parts of the physics community. The medium of distribution is not germane. A preprint is not considered a publication because it has not yet been formally reviewed and it is often not the final form of the paper. Indeed, a benefit of preprints is that feedback usually leads to an improved published paper or to no publication because of a revealed flaw. Analogous to a preprint is the often detailed oral presentation of work at a conference. Once again we do not view this as prior publication but as a salutary step toward publication."

I hope the SMBE council takes this advice to heart when they discuss it this summer.


Unknown said...

Dear Melissa,

That's the sort of post I would like to have written (but I didn't know how to write). Thanks for bringing up this important issue.

I feel that SMBE is way behind the other publishers (in terms of publishing policy). After some correspondence with the editors of both MBE and GBE I decided to send my papers elsewhere. One of them is now accepted in Nucleic Acids Research. The editor of NAR journal was very happy to accept papers already posted in arXiv.

Long story short, I'd love to submit papers to SMBE journals again as I think they are the avant-garde of evolutionary sciences, but not at any cost. Hope they change soon their policy.


mathbionerd said...

Hi Toni,

I do too. I was invited to comment on the current (confidential) proposed policy. I made some suggestions, and recently sent more recommendations. Hopefully no one regrets asking me to comment on the policy, because I just can't stay quiet about it as more and more information comes my way.

What you state is my biggest concern: High quality science will be funneled away from MBE and GBE if the Society does not change its antiquated preprint policy.

In addition to hoping for the best, I will continue to work to do everything possible to help change it (perhaps to the chagrin of the council).