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Is Nature now a Preprint Server?

I imagine that most people reading this blog are already aware that Nature is staging an online debate about peer review at the moment, and are even running what they are calling a ‘trial’ of open peer review.

The trial will be very interesting as it essentially means that Nature has turned itself into a preprint server for the next 3 months. The sad thing to me about this is that Nature isn’t making any commitment to maintain the papers presented in this preprint form. Indeed if they don’t make the Nature cut “the manuscript and comments on the preprint server will be removed from public access”. In my view that is where the whole thing breaks down. The scientific literature must not be ephemeral it’s a record. Nothing presented in this trial can be cited, or referred to in any way, because it might not be there tomorrow.

Nature are fully aware of the problems this might cause. Replying to comment by Kim Barrett Chair of the Publications Committee of the American Physiological Society, Maxine (Clarke) said: “When considering whether to post their submission on the Nature preprint server, authors would be best advised to think about which journal they would send their manuscript to if declined by Nature,… This, while honest, is hardly an encouragment to authors to take part in the trial.

It would be enlightening to be able to know what gets submitted to Nature and compare it with what they eventually publish. However, I doubt we will get to see this. The trial has so far been runnng for 5 days but it currently presents only four papers while, from personal experience, I’d guess that about 150 manuscripts have been submitted to Nature during the same period. Still it’s early days yet.

When describing PLoS ONE we have frequently been asked whether what we are producing is a pre-print server along the lines that the Nature trial has adopted. The answer is ‘no’. We won’t be publishing papers before peer-review. All submissions will be assessed for their suitability for inclusion in the scientific literature, a decision concentrating on technical and objective questions rather than subjective ones. Once published these papers will be open for discussion and review but they will remain a firm and permanent addition to the scientific record.

  1. Hello Chris

    Thank you for your posting about Nature’s peer review project. We were very sorry that the PLOS editors declined to contribute to our debate which we are running concurrently with the trial (see http://www.nature.com/nature/peerreview/debate/index.html — it contains some fascinating articles)

    In your post, you cite my comment out of context.
    Dr Barrett was pointing out that the AHA journal would not consider a manuscript for publication if it had been previously posted on a preprint server. My response was to say that Nature (and to my knowledge, many other world class journals including I am sure the PLOS journals) would and do certainly consider for publication submitted manuscripts that have previously been published on a preprint server. I think that your posting might more usefully have asked the AHA and other journals that have this policy, why they have the policy of not considering manuscripts for publication that have previously been put on a preprint server for community feedback.

    Turning to your more general comments about Nature’s project, I would like to make a couple of clarifications which perhaps you did not realise.

    First, the project is a 3-month trial, as stated on our website. During this time, we are collecting feedback from participating authors, and others. At the end of that process, we will review the feedback and decide how to proceed.

    Second, the preprints that we are planning to remove are those that we decline to publish after review. If any author in that situation wishes us to keep their preprint on the preprint server, we would be happy to do so. It is up to the author.

    Thanks again for your post, Chris.
    All best wishes
    (Disclaimer: My name is Maxine Clarke, I am an editor at Nature, and Chris is an ex-colleague of mine.)

  2. Maxine.

    Sorry if you felt quoted out of context. I completely agree that attitudes towards publication on preprint servers are highly inconsistent. I definitely think Nature has the right approach.

    Thank you also for the clarification. It certainly wasn’t the impression I got from reading your FAQ’s list. You might want to clarify the matter there as well. I’m hoping the option of leaving the original submission and comments available to public scrutiny will also be extended to authors asked to revise their manuscripts, again the FAQ’s suggest otherwise.

    Finally, a belated thanks for inviting some of my colleagues to write for your Peer Review Debate. Had we been able to provide a formal piece we would have been in great company, you have assembled some fine authors with interesting things to say. I’ll be over soon to add my two penn’orth in the comments.


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