bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

On preprints, open access and generational change

A bunch of things are happening/happened recently that are all tied together in my head so I thought writing some of these things down would be useful (for me at least!).  The “things” are:

Let me try and get this straight 😉

Generational change

Generational change is both inevitable and necessary.  Each new generation comes along, takes a look at the system, identifies problems with that system, and takes measures to fix those problems.  I don’t mean just in science, I mean across life in general – a good example might be our treatment of the environment.  Twenty years ago, no-one cared about the environment; in twenty years time pretty much everyone will care.  This is generational change in action, and often it has to involve the disruption of existing power structures.

The problem with disruption of power structures is that those in power don’t like it; they want to hold on to those structures, because they are the source of that power.  However, this only serves to slow down progress – change is inevitable, and the best thing those in power could do is to get out of the way and help enable the change to happen.   However, crucially, they cannot own that change; those in power cannot and should not take credit for it.  It doesn’t belong to them – the old system is the one that belonged to them, they reaped the benefits.  The new system belongs to and should be driven by the next generation.

This is important – it is important that we empower our younger generations, rather than taking their ideas and pretending they are our own.

Blogs and social media as the democratisation of opinions and power

Let me paint you a picture.  A young graduate says to an established professor “Hey, I love science and I want to be a researcher.  I have some great ideas about research, but I also want to influence how research is done.  How do I get in to it?”.  The answer is simple.  “First you need to do a PhD, which may mean you are effectively used as cheap labour to carry out some of your supervisor’s ideas that they couldn’t get funding to do elsewhere.  After four years, you will need to get a post-doc in a good lab, and probably 90% of people will drop out at that stage.  As soon as you are a post-doc be sure to publish in high impact journals (Nature/Science/Cell etc) because you will need those to get a second post-doc or fellowship – though you won’t have much influence on where you publish as your PI will decide that.   To be a PI/group leader you will need to apply for and win one of a very few, highly competitive fellowships.  Finally, as a fellow, you will be given a small budget and have the chance to explore ideas of your own.  You will have 5 years to prove you can ‘cut it’ as a PI i.e. win a grant.  If you win enough grants as a fellow, you can be a junior group leader.  However, this is not a secure position – you will have to constantly publish and win grants for many years before finally you will be given tenure.  Then people might start listening to you – you may get to be an expert on grant panels, you may get to have some tiny influence on strategy and the type of science that gets funded.  You’ll probably be at least 50 by then”

Are we surprised that young people might take one look at that and say “Fuck that” ?

Jingmai O’Connor’s assertion that critiques of published papers should only happen via similarly published papers means that probably 90% of the scientific work force would be unable to critique her work, because only PIs get to decide what gets published and when by their research groups.

Is anyone else looking at this system and thinking “the young have no voice”?  Is it any wonder that the next generation have taken to blogs and social media to find that voice?

Don’t get me wrong, blogs and social media are still biased – if a Nobel winner starts a blog, it’ll be read way more than if a PhD student starts one – but they are still a far more level playing field than the academic system – because if someone starts a blog or joins social media, by-and-large, if they say something interesting, engaging or useful, they will build up a following and they will become known, they will become influential in their own way, and this is an incredibly good thing.   It is a form of empowerment of the younger generation in a system that almost completely lacks it.

Anything that improves access to research outputs is a good thing

I must say I have the utmost respect for Mike Eisen.  He has been passionate about open access from the start, and now he is passionate about preprints.  You will find no criticism of him here.  I am 100% an open access advocate, and I believe preprints are an excellent idea.

However, Andy Fraser makes an excellent point:

As soon as established, superstar scientists adopt something, the story is no longer the story, the story is the superstar.  Take a look here:

This is the very same Randy Schekman who published countless papers in pay-walled glamour mags, but then started telling everyone to publish open access.  Well, the open access movement isn’t about Randy.

Is it a good thing that Novel laureates are putting out preprints and supporting open access?  Of course it is!

Does it annoy me that they are getting tons of credit and attention for something (open access) that I and others have been doing our entire careers?  Of course it does.  It annoys the shit out of me.  Because the story of revolution in academic publishing doesn’t belong to the guys who made the old system and then changed their minds; the story belongs to the people who made the new system – the Mike Eisens of the open access world and the countless PIs, post-docs and students who have never been anything other than open.

I am glad some established professors are changing their mind, but the credit and attention for the OA movement has to go to those who’ve committed their entire career to open access.

“They can’t win”

The obvious response to Andy’s tweet is that the established professors can’t win; they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  It’s an argument Mike made too:

I see the argument, I really do, but the point is that the established professors have already won.  They have tenure, they have funding, they have established reputations.  Don’t say they can’t win, because they already did win.

Of course it’s great that the establishment are embracing open access, and preprints, but somehow they need to make the story not about them.  They need to make the story about the people who drove the change – perhaps it was a student or post-doc who persuaded them to put up a preprint, or to submit to an OA journal.  If that’s the case, make the story about the student/post-doc.   Perhaps they just had an epiphany?  Well if that’s the case, a bit of humility wouldn’t go amiss.  Don’t ride in on your white horse and take all the credit for winning the war; instead, fall on your sword and apologize that you once fought for the other side.

The revolution in academic publishing isn’t about established professors, it’s about generational change and empowerment of a new generation of scientists.  Let’s not lose sight of that.  And let’s not take something away from the younger generation who have so little to begin with.


  1. Generational change isn’t always a force for good. e.g. the 1930s in Germany where quite the opposite happened. Of course if you like the changes, its good, if you don’t its bad. If the nazis had won they’d be making the same pro generational change point you are making.

  2. biomickwatson

    22nd February 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Ha, great use of Godwin’s law! Yes in that case it didn’t work out….

  3. What a great piece – thank you so much for writing it 🙂

  4. If you want to force change, and encourage preprints, then I propose the following:

    PLOS (or other “influential”) OA publisher ceases to accept unsolicited article submissions, and (ideally) individually invites submissions of articles from high quality preprint servers. Or, less ideally, only accepts sumissions in the form of links to a preprint server.

  5. I was going to make the same point – generations can “go backwards”! Right now in Australia, for example, society is if anything more conservative and less socially-progressive than 20-30 years ago. To use your example of the environment, it sometimes seems to me that very few people think or care about environmentalism very much any more, which makes me very sad.

  6. I suggest tweeting about all bioRxiv preprints with a series of exclamation marks and a hashtag #OAcreditwhereitsdue 😉

    P.S. Have you seen the For Better Science blog about the O’Connor story? With the comments too – it is very revealing, but also very sad IMO.

  7. You say “Twenty years ago, no-one cared about the environment; in twenty years time pretty much everyone will care. ” Bullshit! Many people cared deeply about the environment 20 years ago. The big changes in attitude came with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. If people hadn’t cared 20 years ago, the air across the US would be as bad as Beijing is now.

    It is always the belief of the young that they are the first to have deep feelings or to have thought of whatever, but only occasional are these beliefs warranted.

  8. FYI – it was the decision of the graduate student first author in Randy Schekman’s lab to submit our manuscript to biorxiv, not Randy’s (though we did discuss it). Ultimately, a lasting change in publishing is on the shoulders of young scientists. I believe they can (must) act as leaders, but they need a supportive environment to do so. For fostering an open atmosphere that encourages young scientists to freely decide how to best disseminate their work to the scientific community, I would argue that Randy does deserve (at least some) credit.

  9. I am not even sure it counts as Godwin’s law when it happens on the first iteration. Right out of the bat.

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