Why I Love Pre-Prints

James Heathers
Mar 9, 2018 · 11 min read

A personal story told through Jack Nicholson gifs for no reason.

In the month of February, I pre-printed three papers before submission.

1. You’d think physiology and psychology would be natural bedfellows. They aren’t. The focus on the brain often means that psychologists know alarmingly little about the peripheral physiology that they measure. This paper is an attempt to outline some reasons that ‘dead’ physiological theories can live on in contemporary psychology.

2. I’ve been working on this for such a long time. There are a select group of people who can, for no reason we understand, give themselves goosebumps. We know almost nothing about this ability, and it’s an exciting window into mind/body integration.

(^ Note: where this blurry photo of a happy dude is from, I have no idea.)

3. Heart rate and heart rate variability are affected by a lot of things, and one of them that is never talked about is food and water. This is a non-trivial effect, and a big problem for laboratory studies.

And for some reason, Open Science Framework doesn’t give me a cool panel link, so that one is here.

Three pre-prints. Busy month.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, pre-prints are scientific papers which are posted in the public domain. They may eventually be sent to scientific journals, be reviewed, and then published, but first they are simply flung into the scientific consciousness when you decide it would be fun.

The last few years have led to a rapid proliferation of outlets which handle pre-prints. SocArxiv, engrxiv, PsyArXiv, AgriXiv, PaleoArXiv, and ChemRxiv all grew out of the granddaddy pre-print server ArXiv. There are a haul of others and similar (PeerJ Preprints, The Winnower, F1000, preprints.org, and probably more by now).

Now.

Normally, I write about facts, and yell a bit (it keeps my skin fresh). My typical take on a topic like “Preprints — what are they like” would be some kind of strategic discussion, pros and cons, evidence.

But not today. Today, it’s personal, and while I feel somewhat indulgent even writing this, the following is primarily about my feelings.

Because I goddamn love preprints.

I love them like Robert Hamburger loves ninjas.

This is why.

They’re Quick

In many ways, I am fundamentally unsuited to be an academic.

To navigate the endless meandering river of bullshit, disappointments, setbacks, and rejection is a challenge.

Actually, I’ll rephrase — it’s a challenge for patient, level-headed, phlegmatic people. For me, who is none of these by nature, it is a struggle. Administrative bollocks confound me. My brain simply rebels. I look at the empty boxes on the form and they start to swim around. I have put off simple process-driven tasks off for literally years because I reserve a special cold black hatred for them. I don’t consider them beneath me, it’s not that I can’t do them, I’m just awful at them. I have some resistance I can’t fully define.

Let me put it this way: once I sliced my foot open on an oyster shell, and made a face, sewed it up with fishing line and got on with my life.

And also once I was having such a bad time doing a reasonably small amount of student marking that I cried. Big tough guy, me. Beaten up by a poorly-thought out essay on theory of mind.

(In my defense, I’m so, so much better at things like this than I used to be. It’s a learned skill, I suppose.)

If tasks have people rather than spreadsheets in them, I am much, much better. I have been at Inbox Zero for six or seven years. I have replied to damn near *everyone* who wasn’t selfish, rude, or incoherent.

So.

When it comes to journal submission criteria, I have had some very poor experiences.

“You did the wrong margins! IN MY COUNTRY THIS IS INSULT.” “Those references should only have TWO abbreviations! Gosh!” “Semi-colons not commas! How DARE you, sir/madam/tree.” “Your disrespect for the Holy Formatting is palpable.” “This reflects a lack of scholarship.” <- Note: this one was actually real.

I do realise that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that standards exist for a reason, but if you care about this enough to berate me about it, I hate you. As far as I’m concerned, you’re flicking quaaludes into the kettle of progress. You are leather elbow patches with no jacket.

Pre-print servers, on the other hand, actively boast about things I care a great deal about a great deal more:

“Our process is more streamlined and less ridiculous than everyone else’s!” “Share things faster!” “Upload it any the hell way you want!” “Make updates in real time! ”

I can’t nod hard enough. Increasingly, now, I can get a document online in twenty minutes. Even I can live through twenty minutes of boxes.

Especially because…

They Allow Publication To Be Psychologically Satisfying

When I finished my PhD, getting it handed in was momentous. I actually kept and framed the crappy office-paper second-carbon-copy-of-the-submission form they give out.

I gave the actual certificate with the gold leaf to my mum, as a kind of record that her support for me occasionally resulted in comprehensible document.

She stuck it in the hallway. It’s still there.

But she could pick her teeth with it for all I care, I just wanted to finish. It was extremely satisfying — the date came marching up, and we made plans, and we changed plans, and we hit the deadline, and we passed the document over. The big rubber stamp came out. And I smiled and gurned and danced in the corridor.

What happened next was significantly more boring.

It took months for it to be marked. It took me six days to make the required changes. It took months for changes I made to be accepted. Then one day with no fanfare I got an email in the middle of the night informing me I was entitled to call myself Doctor.

By then, it was old hat. I was working side-jobs, and interviewing, and worrying myself sick. I was long gone.

I relive this every time I write a paper. Waiting, punctuated by occasional and unexpected flashes of extreme frustration or pleasure.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve been able to plan and then submit both (a) the public release of documents and (b) their submission. It goes up in the morning, by the afternoon, you’ll be able to read it. And seeing as it’s an achievement, I’ll feel good about it. I can schedule submission AND release.

I mean, should we be celebrating getting the work done, getting it released, or having it being appropriately curated/deemed acceptable?

My answer is: both.

I don’t want to devalue the curation process here — I still think it’s necessary (in whatever form it might consist), and this does not equate the uncritical acceptance and equalisation of any old bollocks, hurled into the public consciousness like a handful of gravel, that begins with the word ‘Introduction’.

What I’m saying is: the publication process removes the intrinsic reward for the actual achievement of writing something. My life is already on a partial reinforcement schedule. I am that pigeon which keeps smashing its empty round head into the button, demanding a pellet that arrives with a predictability only rivaled by the Boston public transport system.

Pre-prints allow updating, with version control

In an ideal world, I would be allowed to hold the very last earthly copy of some published papers, and burn them in some kind of Eyes Wide Shut ceremony. Weird robes mandatory, weird sex optional.

It would be different, I tell myself, if the publication record could be more easily changed. The continuing existence of research in an ossified bin, without the ability to be modified, marked up or adapted, is occasionally responsible for wasting an awful lot of other people’s time.

In fact, we can’t even integrate retractions or corrections — the most important mark-up of a paper you could imagine — between official outlets.

About this aspect of publishing, my opinion is … strident.

If I get to go into detail, and I do because you can’t stop me, I imagine scientific papers as some kind of opposite analogue of software. You can make no edits, add no riders, create no dynamic feedback (“I see you are citing XYZ! Have you considered not doing something so monumentally short-sighted, you complete root vegetable?”) Even a timestamped ‘author’s notes’ section would be an innovation.

Not so pre-prints. Version 2! Version 2.1! Explanatory notes! Supplementary material! Upload more of the data. Stack it to the skies!

I had to do this with one of the above papers, the first one. It was originally about a specific issue in HRV analysis, but the lessons it contained were always supposed to be read by social scientists, psychologists in particular.

In trying to make the paper more general, I wrote the specific details of this ‘behaviour’ vs. ‘bits of people which contribute to behaviour’ continuum out of V.1 completely. Then I pre-printed it in September last year, and sent it to a psychology journal, who sent it back saying “this is very good, but are you quite sure this is a psychology paper?”

Then, realising that I was a five-sided bozo, I wrote the missing bits back in.

V.2 was born.

Weighing them up, I liked the new version a lot better. And now it’s official.

They Flag Me As A Participant In A Conversation.

Publishing pre-prints sends a message I want to send. They say I am willing to talk. They say I want to be a participant in open culture. Please read my stuff.

I like that. Because I do want to talk. People bang on about having a mentor. Personally, I think it’s a bunch of shit. I prefer having twenty, and only asking them to invest time in me when I’ve got something relevant. Or when it might be helpful for them as well.

This isn’t a network. Another word I despise. Networking is dreadful, and people who are good at it flag themselves as someone you probably need to hide your wallet around. Personally, I’m happiest when someone fronts me as awkwardly as humanly possible, stumbling and uncertain. You, you shambling modesty made flesh — we can absolutely be friends.

Anyway. Basically, I’d like to be part of a conversation. Let us speak. Pre-prints say this louder than I can myself.

They Establish Precedence

The fear of ‘scooping’, that someone will come along and publish the same result as you first, is often overblown. People are so worried about this, but often for no reason — the scooping bogeyman is usually a combination of a few bad stories and a lot of negativity.

What is unfortunately more common is that if two papers on the same idea are in production at the same time, someone involved will throw part of the publication process in the way of one of them.

But a pre-print is excellent and unassailable protection against this kind of fuckery. No-one else has any control. You release the document into the public domain. If a reviewer ties it up in review, rejects it, then rushes to publish something suspiciously similar, you have evidence.

We’d see a lot less of these shenanigans if everything that was ‘ready to publish’ was public. You can’t scoop something that exists, and you can’t plagiarise it.

Pre-Prints Allow Everyone to Read It

Well, obviously. This is the point people mention most about pre-prints. Streamline and democratise the access to information.

But I don’t just mean for researchers.

One of these pre-prints above (the second one) is being read by a non-academic audience (that’s why it has 3000 views in its first week, and why my tweet about it has 80,000 impressions — it’s interesting).

But this isn’t just about the public, it’s been read by many of the non-academic people who volunteered to participate in it. Lots of people have written to me about this one. I’ve had a brilliant time talking to them about it, and the people who were in the research are happy to see their commitment result in something they can read.

The idea of locking this paper down so it can’t be read by the people who were in it is quite awful. Let’s not do that. I would be devaluing their contribution by writing something about them to which they are denied access.

My Papers Can Be Beautiful. Or Ugly.

There is great satisfaction in clean, beautiful documents. Many journal articles are fine, others are desperately ugly.

If I have the time, I like things to be formatted how I’d like to read them. Yes, it’s fussy. But for an important paper, it feels right.

For a paper that’s in a shit-powered hurry, it’s a lot less important. Two of the above pre-prints were under nasty deadlines.

So, they aren’t perfect.

But I have the freedom to make them scruffy!

Not badly formatted of course, but perhaps failing to completely meet every wonkish guideline for publication. If I’m in a hurry, I can accept the job we can do in the time we have available.

And speaking of publication…

Publication Times Might Last Longer Than My Job

I have a 12 month contract. After some fairly heavily lifting late last year, this got renewed for another 12 months. It’s a guarantee of nothing more than what it says. This is not is a peculiarity of my situation, in many universities this is standard or even mandatory for postdocs.

This is the modern world. It is tenuous and unpleasant. We are all jerking strings with no puppet.

So I do NOT have nine months for something to geek and splutter its way through review, only to fail to pass muster because the editor met my boss at a conference once and didn’t like his tie. I need things I can refer to so we can write grants. I need an ongoing track record of achievement. And now, please. I need control.

And, in many ways which matter, I have it.

Conclusion

Pre-prints help me live my life, and avoid the strong ongoing temptation to move to south-east Asia and become an mahout.

They’re good for science, etc. etc., but they’re also good for ME.

James Heathers

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I write about science. We can probably be friends.