Are preprints better than journal articles?

This is not yet another blog post about the benefits of preprinting your work, if that is what you’re looking for I would suggest checking out the resources at ASAPbio. This is a post about whether a preprint is a more effective medium of communicating research than the reviewed, edited, and formatted articles found in journals, which is something I have not seen someone argue before.

When you preprint your work what is the page limit? What about the figure limit? Supplemental data limit? Mathematical equations that biologists don’t understand limit? The answer to all of these questions is whatever you damn well please.

Unlike graduate school, I went to a respectable institution for undergrad and had the privilege of reading historically significant research as part of my courses. Imagine if the forty page masterpiece of “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” were sent to Nature today. What would that paper be reduced to? How about “On the Origin of Species”? How many amazing figures would just get tossed aside? What about Thomas Morgan’s beautiful work on the basis of heredity?

And those are just the works which thankfully weren’t butchered by journals. Once journals parasitized the scientific community how many works of art that would have existed were erased from history?

Okay, so maybe you don’t care about works of art, and most scientists wouldn’t have produced masterpieces anyways. I would still argue that for most papers the version with more words would be better than the one with fewer words. How many times could you not explain an aspect of your work as fully as you would like because of space constraints? How many times has this resulted in awkward language or unnecessarily complex sentences?

And in science one of the most important measures of impact is number of citations a paper receives, and yet there are citation limits. It’s true that most people probably don’t hit these limits, but how often do the space restrictions in the introduction of the paper limit how much previous work is discussed and therefore cited? Shouldn’t we be allowed to give credit to as many researchers as we want?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the format of journal articles is they are meant to be read by many, while the scientific work will only be used by few. And to get as wide of a viewership as possible researchers are encouraged to sensationalize their work, or weave it into a story with other work even if no connections exist. Maybe the work really isn’t that novel and is limited in its scope and doesn’t fit nicely into the narrative of the field. That’s okay, because science shouldn’t be science fiction.

Let me try to explain using an analogy. Whenever I tried to watch the movie Watchmen I just couldn’t do it. I’m a huge fan of superhero movies, and the movie 300 and therefore Zack Snyder, and really wanted to like Watchmen. But I found the movie to be extremely disjointed and it didn’t help that I’m not a comic book fan and knew nothing about the characters. Then I watched a director’s cut version and everything changed. The “Ultimate Cut” is 215 minutes whereas the theater version is only 163 minutes. Just like journals, studios trim down films to a version that they think will result in them receiving the most money. But true fans who want to know as much as possible about the story prefer the longer versions of the films. Similarly, true scientists want the longest versions of articles possible. So instead of calling them preprints we should be calling them “Ultimate Cuts”.