Hurry up and wait: preprints and the speed of science

I think preprints are excellent. Sharing research without waiting for journals to publish it is a great way to spread valuable work. There are many articles [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:CLLX3DW6},{5421944:SUGB2BTE}”] and papers [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:6D66YSSE},{5421944:E2UBQLN5}”] highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of preprints, so I won’t rehash those arguments here. My positive stance towards preprints is becoming stronger the more disillusioned with traditional pre-publication peer-review I become [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:T5KYPFVJ}”]. But I’ve encountered a tension between two views I strongly endorse. On one hand, I think preprints are a good way to speed up publication and dissemination. On the other, I believe science needs to slow down to improve quality. The contradiction is pretty clear. So, what do I do? Do I jettison one of these views, or are they reconcilable?

Slow ride, take it easy

Far more work is published than anyone can read [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:DZVA3HKK}”]. One of the likely causes is the number of researchers. More and more students are taking psychology and finding jobs as psychologists [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:25VJDERR}”]. This will necessarily result in more papers published each year[note]Unless there is a huge change in research culture.[/note]. Combined with the fact papers are the currency of academia and therefore essential for promotion etc. [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:HPQK67VQ}”], more researchers are pumping out more papers than in previous decades [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:6GLVNXR2}”]. This not only makes it nearly impossible to keep up with the literature, but also leads to theory stagnation [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:ME3SXLLX}”]. Numerous solutions have been put forward, such as large consortium work like the excellent Psychological Science Accelerator. Others are more radical, like limiting the number of papers a scientist can publish a year [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:6GLVNXR2}”]. These all fall under the general idea of ‘slow science’ [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:Q6Q6MKCX}”] and I believe they would strongly benefit science.

Habits and contradictions

Yet preprints seem to fly in the face of dealing with this pressing issue. Our libraries are overflowing [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:KZ5JT2V8}”] and many want to (understandably) reduce the number of papers. Yet some are advocating for a system which aims to reduce the friction in publication, thus speeding it up and increasing the number of papers. Surely one undermines the other? However, I don’t think there is necessarily a contradiction.

The purpose of slow science isn’t just to reduce the absolute number of papers published. It also aims to improve the ratio of low quality to high quality studies[note]I’m leaving aside the complex issue of judging “quality”.[/note]. If there are fewer pressures to publish a high number of papers, if we are given time to think and finely construct our theories and studies, then you would presume the quality will increase. This is because publishing high quality work is difficult and takes time. If we are afforded the luxury of not publishing something, we can better create, rather than needing an endless output to stay afloat. This pressure to publish and the increase in output from scientists has been shown to harm the process of science [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:8WQK4H7L}”][note]To say nothing of the effects on scientists themselves.[/note]. By relieving said pressure, not only will researcher welfare improve, but also the number of high quality papers in relation to low quality papers.

Therefore, how preprints relate to slow science comes down to the quality of the work. If it is of high quality, then faster dissemination and improved visibility are clearly good. This is true even if they appear to go against slow science, because a secondary aim of preprints is to improve their quality via more feedback. Thus, they have similar goals; to ensure that what we are reading is worth it. Of course, this only works if people do provide feedback. But if we are producing fewer papers, would we not have more time to provide such feedback?

Why not both?

As preprints become more popular [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:86D7JX9L}”], we must decide how preprints fit in with how we engage in science. On the surface, they counteract slow science. But I believe if we look at what they are trying to achieve, they are compatible. Not only that, they are complementary. If we engage in some methods of slow science, then speeding up publication, dissemination, and feedback will help share quality work. By reducing the expectation to publish, we can create high quality work and provide feedback on others’ work, thus further improving quality. We can therefore create a positive feedback loop, with fewer but higher quality studies published that are improved upon post publication. Whilst not a golden bullet to fixing science, I strongly believe preprints and slow science will improve the quality of published papers, whilst saving us from wasting time on sub-par papers.


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