John Hutchinson on his PrePrint Experiences at PeerJ

PrePrints continue to increase in popularity among academics, with a number of recent blog posts highlighting their utility (from ourselves, Stephen Curry, Liz Martin-Silverstone, Tim Gowers and Mike Taylor (twice)). Given this level of interest, we thought it would be helpful to ask some of the authors of PeerJ PrePrints about their reasons for publishing their work in this way.

This is the third post in our series of guest blog posts highlighting PeerJ PrePrint authors and for this post we spoke to John Hutchinson. Professor Hutchinson works on Evolutionary Biomechanics at The Royal Veterinary College, University of London. He is an Academic Editor with PeerJ and has published 7 articles in PeerJ PrePrints.

hutchinsonCan you tell our readers a little bit about your research area?

My team’s research is broadly on the evolution of form, function and behaviour (primarily locomotion, especially walking/running) in vertebrate animals. We’re interested in how major locomotor adaptations evolved, such as how dinosaurs became bipedal and then evolved flight as birds (and later lost it many times), how giant land animals are constrained by gravity and how they’ve adapted to support themselves against this constraint, and how four-legged vertebrates (tetrapods) first got onto land and evolved the ability to walk and run. To answer these questions in the area of “evolutionary biomechanics”, we use a variety of techniques from basic anatomy (dissection of cadavers, or inspection of fossils), tissue histology and 3D imaging to in vivo/ex vivo experimentation and computer modelling or even dynamic simulation (to measure things we cannot measure experimentally, such as muscle forces, or to predict motions in extinct organisms that we cannot observe directly).

Why did you decide to submit the draft of your article(s) to PeerJ PrePrints?

We’ve gotten into the habit of submitting all of our PeerJ papers as preprints for two main reasons: (1) because physicists have done the same sort of thing for years and it seems to work well for them, and (2) because we’re evolving into more sharing scientists who solicit feedback at many stages of their research (social media, face-to-face socialising, conferences, and now preprints, as well as formal “polished” publications). It just makes sense to get the work out there for people to see as soon as possible in the publication/peer review process. I don’t see what there is that we’d need to hide; any risks seem really trivial in comparison with the benefits of early share-ability (and perhaps priority) and the resulting feedback that comes from conversations arising out of that sharing. And more fundamentally, I was really curious how the preprint experience would turn out. I was very happy with it– it generated early interest in our research and allowed us to cite our work in reports and other venues while peer review proceeded. I will continue to use preprints, and may try other ways of making them more useful to my team.

What are the benefits to you personally of publishing your work as a PeerJ PrePrint prior to any formal peer review process?

I get the personal satisfaction of seeing the research appear online very quickly. That’s fun in itself! And the preprints are trivially easy to follow to the final published version. I am thus able to have conversations about the research without being hamstrung by just having (at most?) a 200-300 word conference abstract buried on some society website as the only record of that research. I and others were able to cite my preprint in other manuscripts (then switch the citation to the full manuscript once accepted), and peer reviewers could even read that preprint to see what it was about, so research was sped along without having to wait for the peer review and publishing processes to complete. Life is short. Science is increasingly digital. There’s no reason to live by prior centuries’ practices and technological constraints which could make scientific progress agonizingly slow– science should become faster, more efficient, and more open to the world. The benefits of these changes to society should easily outweigh the fairly trivial discomfort of the cultural transition.

What would you say to anyone who had any doubts about publishing their draft article as a PeerJ PrePrint first?

The various fears I’ve heard raised about pre-prints were unvalidated by my experiences. I had no trouble with anyone stealing my ideas– indeed, I think preprints reduce that risk. Presenting at a conference or discussing over coffee runs higher risks, because preprints have a full digital object identifier code and other protections of intellectual property that casual, low-tech conversations lack. No one seemed confused that the work was still in peer-review, not a formal publication. The “in review” nature of the research was extremely clearly emblazoned on the preprint website, so if someone didn’t catch that distinction, it would be their fault and not my concern. Even so, that seems to be a temporary inconvenience at worst, which cultural change will overcome. There seems to me to be nothing really to lose in using preprints and it is mainly cultural inertia and unfamiliarity that is slowing their acceptance. The fears I’ve heard about preprints seem to, at worst, be unlikely situations that would only rarely become a problem and are not risks that are unique to preprints vs. other forms of conversations such as interpersonal, social media or scientific conference presentations of science-in-progress. Indeed, many features of preprints have appreciable advantages over the former kinds of conversations. I think it is useful to think of, and talk about, preprints as just another kind of conversation in science, and one with a proven track record that should give us confidence in using them

We thank Professor Hutchinson for this guest post and we encourage you to submit the next article you are working on to PeerJ PrePrints. If, like Professor Hutchinson, you are a paleontologist, then check out our Paleontology preprints.


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