MDS Community Conversations: Interview with Dr. Jon Stoessl on Preprints in the COVID-Era

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MDS Community Conversations Advisory Team:  Victor Fung, MBBS, PhD, FRACP; Kelvin Chou, MD, FAAN; Maria Stamelou, MD, PhD, FEAN; Catalina Cerquera-Cleves, MD; Oluwadamilola Ojo, MD; Woong-Woo Lee, MD; Michele Matarazzo, MD

Prepared by Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren, PhD  

Preprint articles of scientific results have been thrust into the spotlight due to the desire for rapid results pertaining to COVID-19. Here, we dive into the trend with Movement Disorders’ editor, Dr. Jon Stoessl.

This work was originally produced as a podcast and can be found here.


Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Hello, and welcome to this edition of MDS Community Conversations. We are so excited to be collaborating with the MDS podcast team to bring you this interview. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren, and I have the pleasure of interviewing our Movement Disorder, journal editor, Dr. Jon Stoessl. Today, we'll be chatting about the hot topic of preprints and the COVID era.

How are you today, Dr. Stoessl?

Jon Stoessl: Very well, thanks, and glad to be talking about this topic.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Well then let's dive right in. For those who don't know yet, what are preprints and where did they come from?

Jon Stoessl: Preprints actually have quite a long history going back, I think 50 years or more, but they've really become much more popular in the last three years or so. These are publications that have not yet undergone peer review or editorial review that has not been published. They're typically upload onto a preprint server, so that they can be available for the scientific community or the general community to read.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: You mentioned that they haven't gone under any peer review or editorial review. Does anyone besides the author read it before it's on the server?

Jon Stoessl: Not that I'm aware of. Although, I have not actually been involved in the process from that side of things. I think I've been an author on papers that have been uploaded to preprint servers. And, I certainly look at papers that appear on preprint servers, but to my knowledge, nobody besides the author has responsibility for checking the content.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: You mentioned that these have been around for a while, I think the joke when I was in graduate school was that preprints came from Physics. I don't know if that's actually accurate. Why do you think preprints have become more popular?

Jon Stoessl: I'll come back to that, but I think you're right, that probably it came from physics and math. I believe that there are papers in the field of mathematics that have only ever appeared on pre-print servers. I think that in the past preprints were used in perhaps a slightly different meaning, you could attach preprints to grant applications.

There is a history that goes back before the modern day era. I think what's happened more recently, is that in general, in the publishing world, there has been a demand for more rapid dissemination of information. The scientific community wants this, the authors want it, and I think the general public does as well.

That has spawned a massive growth in the last three years or so, and a very different attitude towards the use of this venue.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Can preprints be cited in a paper. You mentioned in a grant, but what about in a paper or in another journal?

Jon Stoessl: Yes, absolutely, they can be. Typically, we cite papers where each journal has its own format, but these days, published papers have a digital object identifier or DOI number. The difference is for papers that appear on a preprint server, the DOI has a somewhat different format. Most DOIs somehow incorporate the name of the journal.

That means from a practical perspective, that if you're using automatic reference software to prepare your references, you won't be able to automatically download the pre-print citation as easily as you can for a published paper. Because it won't appear when you enter the DOI. Preprint papers, to my knowledge, do not have a, PubMed ID number.

So there are some differences, but there's no reason that you cannot cite them. And indeed, we see this happening increasingly.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: What about citing a paper in a news article?

Jon Stoessl: I don't see any reason that that could not be done. In fact, I'm not sure that the recent news articles have cited according to the preprint server, format. But, certainly as we know in the last few months, there have been a lot of papers that have appeared in pre-print form that have been picked up by the media.

 Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: So that actually leads me right to my next question. Thinking about how preprints have been different in the COVID age or the COVID era as it is now being referred to. Prior to this, did preprints normally get media attention?

Jon Stoessl: I'm not sure I can totally answer that question, but I suspect nowhere near the same extent has as right now. The history of wanting more rapid dissemination of information isn't is limited to COVID. And if you think of relatively recent years, one of the major precipitants for this was HIV AIDS, where there was a strong public demand for early dissemination of information.

We've seen a huge uptake in the COVID age and, this means, unfortunately, that sometimes material is picked up by the media probably before it's fully ready for public consumption.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Yeah, so that leads into the next question I had about the public perception of science and scientists, and how that's really important here. When a story that isn't quite ready for public consumption gets out into the public, how does that impact science that is done at the highest level of rigor?

Jon Stoessl: Well, I think it is one of the potential negative impacts of having rapid dissemination. In general, this has historically been the reason that journals have not published material until it has been subject to rigorous peer review. You're constantly walking a fine balance between ensuring that the material that is disseminated has undergone that kind of rigorous review versus understanding that we do in fact require rapid dissemination. And sometimes that need is critical.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: One of the other things I wanted to ask about was that pre-print journals are often free and publicly available. Do you think this access is part of what contributes to what media outlets pick up?

Jon Stoessl: I'm not sure that it's the cost per se. Although obviously, in general, this means that the material is more accessible. There is, of course, a growing move in the publication world in general for increasingly open access. And so that's true for even journals that do have a rigorous peer review process in place.

They may still have varying levels of open access. This has become an important political issue. There's been a strong move, particularly in Europe, but also in North America, for papers to be made openly available. This comes with various costs, some of which are financial, because there is obviously a financial cost associated with publishing.

I think the real cost is, you know, related to the level of review. Historically, most scientists tend to be cautious people who want to give careful consideration, before they take their findings and interpretations out to a broader community.

But, the scientific community faces pressure as well. Those pressures may be in the form of need for promotion, wanting to receive grant support. There's always been a pressure on scientists as well to try and get maximal visibility for their findings. Of course, if you have something, that you're really excited about, naturally, you want to get it out there. That has historically been much more balanced, I would say by the peer review process, which also has its negative side.

The reality is that this world has been shifting very quickly. And we've just seen a very extreme example of it because of COVID. But there has in general been, an increasing and rapidly growing demand for, for earlier dissemination.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Do you think this is good for science as a whole?

Jon Stoessl: Dissemination, is a good thing. If the results are real. There is a downside of the peer review process that people have been aware of for many years, that sometimes papers can be held up for months. I think in general, there is a push, there's a pressure to have more rapid peer review and most journals, I think, try to live up to that pressure, but it is challenging.

In the past, there would be papers that would spend several months in peer review. Then the argument is this could be potentially very useful information and it's being held back. It's never seeing the light of day or a paper might even potentially be rejected after several months.

That's something you want to minimize, but at the same time, even with the best of intentions, people may have overlooked something in their data. When you're the one generating the data, it's much less likely that you're going to have an entirely objective view of it. So, there may be an important control condition that's being left out. You may have even overlooked prior literature on the topic. We need peer review to ensure that. Yeah, things are done in a methodologically, robust fashion that people have considered alternative interpretations of the data and that they also place the new information in the appropriate context of prior existing literature.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Yeah, I can say from personal experience that my paper's always significantly improve after a few rounds of peer review,

Jon Stoessl: I'm glad to hear you say that, because, you know, journal editors are often accused of being negative people. In most cases, even when you accept a paper, you want to ensure that you're allowing the authors to do the best possible job. It's actually quite common that authors will write back and express gratitude for the effort and suggestions that reviewers and editors have made to overall strength and the quality of the paper.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Absolutely. I absolutely agree that. You can get so much stronger of a paper after it's been through that process. Okay, so now I want you to think a little bit big picture for me. I want to ask, if you could start from scratch, what would be your vision of the ideal publication process?

Jon Stoessl: Well, we try to meet that as best we can. First of all, the issue is what's the ideal publication. It's something that is novel that will change the way that people view a particular problem. It brings important new information and that is done in a robust fashion. Of course, you would like it to be clearly written, so that it can be readily communicated in terms of process.

You want the submission process and the review process to be relatively painless for the authors. That's actually becoming increasingly challenging for a variety of reasons. And you want the review process to be efficient, but thorough. And that has also become challenging because, the sheer number of papers that are submitted certainly to our journal.

I think in general is forever increasing. Which means that there's simply a volume that has to be managed and that takes time. And it's also, I think, increasingly challenging to find reviewers because reviewers, in addition to their regular full time jobs, are facing increasing demands to review manuscripts and grants.

There's a limit to what anybody can do. So, obviously it goes without saying that you want the review process to be fair and constructive, that the decision will be made, is similarly in an efficient and fair manner.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Yeah, absolutely.  Now I have to pivot a little bit to the MDS journals. Do you think the presence of preprints changes anything for the MDS journals?

Jon Stoessl: I'm not really sure that it does. I think the reality is that the world has been moving in this direction. So, But I guess the question is whether you choose to put a blindfold on and lie down on the tracks, or whether you simply accept that there is a process that is happening in the world around you and you do your best to embrace it and live with it.

There is a relatively minor structural change, which is that in the past, the guidelines have not been explicit about, permitting a preprint server submission.  In other words, the journals will consider material that has already been posted on a preprint server.  Those guidelines, are in the process of being updated. In the past decisions were made on a case by case basis. Whereas, I think what we're seeing now as reflective of the reality around us is that this is simply going to be allowed. Now there are limits, the journal is published, the publisher is Wiley. They have a policy which is that, the journals will accept articles that have been previously published on preprint servers, and we'll consider for review articles that have been available as preprints. However, there is an expectation that once a paper has gone through the various revisions and is accepted for publication, that the preprint server is updated with a link to the final published article.

I mentioned before that the DOI, on the preprint server has a somewhat different format, but when you go to the pre-print server to look for the article, there should be, be a statement saying this paper has now been published in final form at such a location. That should have the updated link. That means that the published article does not appear free of charge on the preprint server. It's only the original version.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Ah, that's an important key point.

Jon Stoessl: Yeah. Authors are not allowed to put the accepted version of a paper on the preprint server. They can post the original submission, but once it's gone through all the changes it becomes the property of the journal.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Dr. Stoessl, your insights are so much appreciated by our community. 


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