Earlier this month, when the biotech firm Human Longevity published a controversial paper claiming that it could predict what a person looks like based on only a teeny bit of DNA, it was just a little over a week before a second paper was published discrediting it as flawed and false. The lightening speed with which the rebuttal was delivered was thanks to bioRxiv, a server where scientists can publish pre-prints of papers before they have gone through the lengthy peer-review process. It took only four more days before a rebuttal to the rebuttal was up on bioRxiv, too.
This tit-for-tat biological warfare was only the latest in a series of scientific kerfuffles that have played out on pre-print servers such as bioRxiv. In a piece that examines the boom of biology pre-prints, Science questions their impact on the field. In a time when a scandal can unfold and resolve in a single day's news cycle, pre-prints can lead to science feuds that go viral, unfolding without the oversight of peer-review at a rapid speed.
"Such online squabbles could leave the public bewildered and erode trust in scientists," Science argued. Many within the scientific community agree.
Posting scientific papers online for anyone to read freely before peer review is not a new practice. Physicists, for one, have long published their work this way. But as scientists increasingly question the slow-pace and exclusive nature of publishing in pay-walled journals, the number of fields in which publishing pre-prints is the norm is growing. In the field of biology, not so long ago, publishing a pre-print was basically unheard of. Now pre-print servers are a common location for biological debate.
Opinions are divided on whether the surge in popularity of pre-prints represent a field-wide disaster or the coming of a populist revolution.
Sure, pre-prints bring more attention to topics of science and make information available more quickly to other scientists. But by forgoing peer-review, pre-prints also serve to highlight for the public just how messy science can be.
In another case last month, a much-hyped Nature paper about editing human embryos came under fire via biorXiv. While researchers claimed they had corrected a dangerous mutation in human embryos using the gene-editing technique CRISPR, the take down suggested scientists had done no such thing.
Since launching in 2013, biorXiv has attracted more than 15,000 papers from 11,000 authors, including celebrity scientists such as Harvard geneticist George Church. But Science points out that only a tiny fraction of biologists have jumped on board. Many scientists still worry about getting scooped on their work, or posting things that are not yet polished. Complicating matters is that reporters increasingly scour pre-print servers for scoops, leading to news coverage of science that has yet to go through the rigour of peer-review. News reports based on inaccurate science can spread far and wide; stories highlighting mistakes of science tend to spread less.
Some bet that one day, as science moves towards being more open and collaborative, pre-prints will become the norm in biology too, as they already have in fields like physics .
At a time when science is already facing a reproducibility crisis, though, scientists duking it out over the accuracy of their work in view of the public seems just as likely to hurt the spread of good scientific information as it is to help it.