Belated Revolution

(September 12th, 2017) Information Exchange Groups could have revolutionised science communication long ago - if only they hadn't been “strangulated” shortly after birth. What can their deaths teach us about the rising trend of preprinting?

A preprint is a scholarly article that is made available to the public in advance of its publication in a peer-reviewed journal. It is fast - less than 24 hour publication time – it's free, it allows the researcher to establish authorship, allows comments by readers and it can be updated at any time. As a disadvantage, many peer-reviewed journals follow the Ingelfinger rule, whereby they do not accept for publication any article that has been previously published in any form. In addition, a preprinted article might also not be accepted as trustworthy by fellow scientists as it is not peer-reviewed. In the Life Sciences, there are currently two preprint servers: PeerJ and biorXiv.

According to a recent article by Matthew Cobb, based at the University of Manchester, preprints are not a modern invention. Their history dates back to the 1630s, when a group of science enthusiasts met in their London homes to discuss, informally, science-related ideas. Three centuries later, written reports suggest that scientists initiated their own science-sharing groups. Former NIH administrator, Erret Albritton, for instance, founded his own informal network called RNA Tie Club in 1955. It seems that scientists at that time were driven by a thirst to discover how the world functions and, as a result, it was a well-respected rule that these ideas, called ‘memos’, would not be plagiarised and would be referenced accordingly. This led to the establishment of the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs) that officially started in 1961. Albritton envisaged them as “continuing international congress by mail”.

Unsurprisingly, the concept was met with both praise and critique from Albritton’s fellows. Francis Crick, for example, said “There is far too much careless and rapid communication already in every area of this field of study. The idea of increasing it even in this semi-public manner fills me with horror.”

Nonetheless, the first IEG started and from just 32 initial members it grew to 386 in less than four years. By 1965, there were 3,663 researchers from 46 countries involved in seven IEGs: oxidative phosphorylation and terminal electron transport; hemostasis; computer simulation of biological systems; molecular basis of muscle contraction; immunopathology; interferon; nucleic acids and the genetic code. Interestingly, although Francis Crick met the IEG concept at first with hostility, his famous ‘wobble hypothesis’ was submitted to the latter IEG.

All in all, the majority of work submitted to IEGs was articles (80%), the remaining 20% were debates and technical notes. David Green, the IEG chair said, in 1963, “the exchange makes it possible for all of its members to be fully informed in record time of all important developments in the field” and that it provides “an outlet for anyone who feels choked by editorial intransigence”.

However, the fathers of modern publishers of peer-reviewed journals, understandably, did not like the idea of IEGs at all. So, what do you do in such cases of competition? You instil a complete silence. This is exactly what editors of prestigious biochemical journals did at a conference in Vienna in 1966. Their decision was to approve a rule by their journals that no article would be accepted, if it was previously published as part of an IEG. Consequently, the NIH was forced to close the IEGs in March 1967. After only six years in existence and having the potential to revolutionise the fate of life sciences we see today, “Preprints [were] made outlaws” as Nature summarised it in 1966. Or as David Green put it, “[it was the] strangulation of one of the most revolutionary innovations in the history of science communication”.

What immense benefit could have IEGs brought into our world if they had been allowed to develop from their infancy to adulthood? We will never know. Luckily, the year of 2017 is a promising one, as an increasing number of peer-reviewed journals overrule their previous objection and accept preprints for publication. Likewise, many major funding bodies (MRC, Wellcome Trust and NIH) now encourage the use of preprints during grant applications. It’s only taken them half a century!

Nadejda Capatina

Photo: Pixabay/Sarah Loetscher

Last Changes: 10.04.2017