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Pre-prints and the new ‘way things are done’

Last week, I was excited to submit my first preprint of a paper. Before this I hadn’t really had to opportunity – people do submit planetary science preprints to arXiv, but I don’t really feel like they ‘fit’ there. But now, with an honest-to-go biology paper in my hands, I had a ready made preprint service I could submit to. The paper is here, if you’d like to see.

However, my experience after submission wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m pretty sure now it wasn’t a good one. Within seconds, my preprint had been immediately and automatically tweeted several times. Ok, I thought, that’s fine. I like the idea of preprints opening a conversation about the science outside of traditional peer review. Then it was tweeted a few more times. Seemingly automatically again, with no context, no discussion. Perhaps people or scripts set up to tweet anything from bioRxiv, or preprints with particular keywords. Anyway, nothing controversial, so I squared this away in my brain as probably just a bit of a weird social media thing.

Then I get an e-mail from a reporter asking about the research. Naively, as I’m always happy to talk to people about my research, I agreed to a call to discuss what was going on. At the beginning of the call, I made clear that I was a little uncomfortable about the press covering what was not peer-reviewed science, but they reassured me that there was a standard process in place for covering preprints and we got to talking about the research.

Long story short, we asked them not to publish a piece until the paper had been peer-reviewed. Let’s get this straight – anyone can submit a preprint to places like arXiv or bioRxiv, and while they get some vetting to make sure they’re not a joke submission (as far as I can tell), no-one checks whether the science is legit. So I’m very uncomfortable with journalists publishing pieces on preprints. People that don’t know much about peer-review might not realise that the content could substantially change, and having been through the process several times, we aren’t kidding when we say that. It’s entirely possible for a reviewer to spot a small (or a large) mistake that could even completely change the conclusions of the research. The majority of the time (I hope?) that doesn’t happen, but peer-review provides a really important check on scientific research. I would emphasise that peer-review doesn’t decide if research is true or not, that’s the domain of scientific reproduction, it merely checks for logical and systematic consistency, that the scientist/s haven’t missed something obvious or made a mistake in their working. Peer-review isn’t the arbiter of scientific truth, and nor should it be, but promoting research before it’s been peer-review can lead to misunderstandings, retractions (or in some cases it should), or potentially the ruination of careers.

So, safe to say, we weren’t comfortable with them putting our research out before we were ready, especially since astrobiology has already a pretty bad example of ‘science by press release’ that didn’t go well for anybody. However, we were told (not by the reporter themselves) that since the research was out there, they were going to cover it, whether we wanted to be quoted in the article or not.

Now, I realise that journalists need to make a living, and that if they hadn’t covered it, ‘someone else would’ (though I would point out no-one else has contacted us about the research, though the article has been ‘rehosted’ by other news sites). But this is really not ok. The article is here, if you want a look. I’m not trying to attack New Scientist – the article is reasonable, doesn’t make outrageous claims and covers our research pretty well. But say under review we have to substantially change the conclusions, or what if the paper gets resoundedly rejected from every journal we send it to because it’s rubbish? The article will live on, at the best being pretty embarrassing, at worst… something worse.

My point is that there’s a new paradigm emerging with the open science movement and the expansion of preprints in general. I welcome expanding the conversation around scientific research, that people other than the assigned peer-reviewers can give opinions on the paper, the general theme of making the process more open, but if it leads to peer-review, the cornerstone of scientific research for hundreds of years and an incredibly important of quality assurance in science, getting sidelined, then perhaps it’s not such a good thing?


Belong

Do you ever feel

You don’t belong?

Not just here

But anywhere?

Sometimes

I think I do


The red ball of rock

Near to us, though not as near as we might like, there is a red ball of rock that looks a bit like our own ball of rock.

It has air around it, but not air like our air. The air there is very light and made of different things than our air.

The ground is like our ground, but not quite. This other ball of rock looks like it should have water all over it, but for some reason it doesn’t. Other than this, the ground looks a lot like ours in some places, in between the round bits made by rocks from the sky.

We have been interested in this other ball of rock for a long time. Really really long ago, people thought the ball of rock was actually a ball of fire, an angry god flying through the sky.

Later on, people looked closer at the red ball of rock and thought they saw things that looked like they were built by people. Everyone got very excited that there might be people on another ball of rock, and wrote exciting stories about the people from the red ball of rock.

Even later, when we managed to send things to the red ball of rock, we saw that there weren’t really any people there. Or things built by people, or any sign of people in the past.

Even though it isn’t as exciting as people from the red ball of rock, we still want to go there and find things out about it. The red ball of rock could tell us many things about our own ball of rock. It could tell us lots about the stories of all the other balls of rock, even the ones very far away, and also about the star in the middle of all of them.

The most exciting thing, though, is that even if there aren’t people on the red ball of rock, there could still be living things there. They would probably be deep down, where it’s safe (not like the ground above them) and might not be like any living things we know. If we could find living things there it would tell us lots about life, about how life may have got started, and about how much life there might be in other balls of rock that are even further away.

Getting to these living things, that live deep down, is really hard though. We have sent things to the red ball of rock that drive around and see exciting things, but they can’t see under the ground. Even if they could see under the ground, the living things there would be so deep they would be hard to see.

To find the living things, then, we have to think different. We have to look for signs of living things rather than the actual living things. I look for things the living things might breathe out or throw away. These could come up from deep down where the living things live until they got into the air, where it’s much easier to see them, from things that we sent to fly around the red ball of rock.

I’m trying to work out what we might be able to see, and what exactly they would look like if we could see them.


Coverage

I was recently contacted by a  reporter after JPL’s Curiosity and methane teleconference announcement (or lack thereof). They asked for some comments, meaning that I have now been featured in a national newspaper. Yes, it’s a national Indian newspaper, but still.

The full article is available here: http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/significance-of-martian-methane/article4095310.ece