How preprint servers transformed my academic career

About a year ago, I was in a tough spot in my academic career – namely, I didn’t have one. I just couldn’t get it started, like a stalling car. Four years of studying, four years of PhD work, and one more year as post-doc in my PhD lab, and I had exactly zero first-author research publications to show for it.

This certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. I had piled up over a dozen rejections by this point, split between two manuscripts, but it was always the same story: each time I turned the key and pressed the gas, I got a promising gurgle (“manuscript under review”) – but ultimately, the engine died (“decision sent to author”).

I wanted to stay in academia, that much I knew. An academic career is a constant, up-hill struggle, and every tiny blunder in the battle for one of the coveted permanent positions –  typically only available to group leaders today – is doubly difficult to make up for later on.

For me, the clock was already ticking for applications for post-doc fellowships. And while others around me accumulated citations, my pile of unpublished manuscripts wasn’t attracting much attention from potential PIs.

So what is a young life scientist to do in such a situation? Until very recently, the ‘system’ would have decided for me – as the well-known phrase goes: “publish or perish”. This phrase has a very real core, and there’s a fair chance I would have perished. But luckily for me, today there’s a new weapon in the academic arsenal that is quickly becoming a transformative force, which offered me a third way out: preprint servers.

I chose to use bioRxiv, a server for preprint life-science papers run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. For me, this was a truly career-saving decision and I want to urge everyone in science – in particular young researchers – to consider it in the face of rejected manuscripts. And getting your name out there isn’t the only advantage of using preprint servers:

Your research reaches the community faster

It can take months, or even years, for traditional peer-reviewed journals to publish your research. During that time, no one in the scientific community can use it for their own research, which stalls scientific progress.

And, from a less idealistic perspective, unpublished work also won’t attract citations, which will delay you in making a name for yourself in the scientific community. Common citation trackers, such as Google Scholar, actually connect manuscripts from preprint servers to the manuscript that is later out in a peer-reviewed journal, so citations carry over and are not split. And preprints are getting cited!

You receive feedback that improves your research

Manuscripts posted on bioRxiv receive considerable attention on Twitter and other social media. This means that your feedback doesn’t only come in the traditional form – namely two or three anonymous PIs with varying degrees of vested interest, all of whom were selected by the journal for enigmatic reasons – but from dozens of PhD students, post-docs and PIs, who read your research because they are genuinely interested.

That isn’t to say that preprint servers can replace peer-reviewed journals, but that’s fine, since this is not what they have been designed for. What preprint servers can do is improve the current peer-review process.

“But, won’t I get scooped?”

You might think it’s foolish to put your science out there for free, where everyone can see it. Maybe some group will replicate your findings and put them into print at a respectable, peer-reviewed journal before you get the chance.

While the fear of getting scooped is entirely understandable in a system that values novelty almost as much as it values impact factor, it isn’t true that preprint papers are entirely unprotected.

Each preprint on bioRxiv gets a DOI, with an associated publication date. This clearly establishes your precedence, which, in a way, actually offers scoop protection rather than scoop risk.

“But why does it matter if I was first when there’s no impact factor?”  

This is also a reasonable concern, considering that academia lives in the realm of peer-reviewed journals and gauges papers by impact factors, and five years ago, I might not have had a convincing counter-point. Luckily, times are a-changing. Big funding agencies giving out post-doc scholarships now put preprints right up alongside peer-reviewed publications, disregarding impact factor as a metric altogether.

This effort is spear-headed by both the EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization) and HFSP (Human Frontier Science Program), who arguably offer the most prestigious fellowship programs currently available to post-docs in the life sciences.

Now let’s come back to my own story. What happened to me, after I put two of my manuscripts on bioRxiv?

Within hours, I received some truly valuable feedback on Twitter that helped me make some substantial improvements to my manuscripts (more so than most formal reviews).

Within days, I received mails from several people who had started to use a new technique I described in one of my preprints, telling me they were already discussing my manuscripts in their journal clubs.

Within weeks, my findings appeared in several blog posts and gained even more recognition.

One of my manuscripts was even cited in a peer-reviewed journal! Within months, I found a young and enterprising PI at a top-of-the-line institute in Europe who gladly took me on as a post-doc, and I successfully competed for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship – and all of this happened before any of my publications were out in a traditional journal!

Looking back, I doubt that any of these achievements would have been possible without the help of preprint servers. Would I still be in science? Possibly. Would I be where I am today? Certainly not.

Preprint servers completely reshaped the trajectory of my career, and I believe they can do the same for you.

Let’s start putting this new tool into practice and help make academia a more encouraging environment for young scientists!

Dr. Sven Truckenbrodt

Postdoctoral researcher, Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria)

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