|Ginsparg P (2017) Preprint Déjà Vu: an FAQ. arXiv:1706.04188.|
Abstract: Twenty-six 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 asxxx.lanl.gov (renamed to arXiv.org in 1999) 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 “pre-publication” articles by physicists. The talk was met with some enthusiasm and prompted the “e-biomed” proposal in the following spring (1999) 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 “e-biomed” proposal soon morphed into what we now know as PubMedCentral (PMC). Participants M. Eisen and P. Brown from the CSHL meeting together with H.Varmus went on to create the Public Library of Science (PLoS). While neither ultimately had a preprint component, both have played leading roles in the open access movement.
I agreed to write a commentary  on Varmus’ proposal that summer (1999), in part to “comment on some of the attempts in the past half year to isolate physicists, or rather to distinguish their research practices from the rest of the scientific community, in an attempt to assert that what has been so successful and continues to grow ‘couldn’t possibly’ work in say the biological or life sciences.”
• Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E
- Once preprints achieve higher number, visibility, and easier searchability within a subcommunity, no one can plausibly claim they “did not see it”. Biology partitions into subcommunities with sizes ranging from many hundreds into the thousands of researchers, just as in physics and other re-search areas, so the self-policing mechanisms can be just as effective.
- But the experience has been that unexpected or rapid progress leads to increased preprint usage within communities, precisely to stake priority claims, and that increased usage remains the norm afterward.
- So far, no community that has adopted arXiv for rapid dissemination has since abandoned it.
- Serious researchers typically take the utmost care before submitting to arXiv, precisely because the work will be exposed to the entire world, and naive errors would be both highly embarrassing and by design not removable.
- The quality control employed by arXiv is unique: not uniquely creative by any means, but unique in its implementation of employing a large group of human moderators (active scientists) to glance at incoming submissions and judge the appropriateness for the subject area — usually based just on title/abstract — and for being above some minimal bar of plausible interest to the research community . Sometimes the process works better than journal review, for instance when moderators work above and beyond the call of duty to spare ill-advised graduate students unnecessary embarrassment (not that it results in much gratitude ).
- Moderators could certainly force retraction or correction, though in practice it is usually readers who notice that something is amiss.
- Sometimes additional suggestions come after the “definitive” journal version is published, in which case the final updated arXiv version can be even more useful to readers.
- Authors are understandably determined to propagate correct information whenever possible, so rather than let readers be misinformed or confused, they typically make immediate corrections to a latest arXiv version, since that’s what many readers access, either before or after publication elsewhere. This is the inevitable consequence if preprint servers come to be regularly used for archival access.
- arXiv has very vocal users who are not just mildly negative about comment threads, but adamantly opposed to having them mediated via the main site. This attitude was recently reinforced by a broad user survey. Authors regard the drama-free minimalist dissemination as a prominent virtue, which contributes to arXiv’s success.