Rapid sharing of influenza research

21 August 2009

plos-currents-influenzaThe open-access Public Library of Science (PLoS) has launched PLoS Currents, a website for the rapid communication of research results and ideas. The first research theme at PLoS Currents is influenza.

The opening of PLoS Currents: Influenza was announced by Harold Varmus, Chairman and Co-Founder of PLoS. He wrote about the reasons for starting this website at The Official Google Blog:

The key goal of PLoS Currents is to accelerate scientific discovery by allowing researchers to share their latest findings and ideas immediately with the world’s scientific and medical communities. Google Knol’s features for community interaction, comment and discussion will enable commentary and conversations to develop around these findings. Given that the contributions to PLoS Currents are not peer-reviewed in detail, however, the results and conclusions must be regarded as preliminary. In time, it is therefore likely that PLoS Currents contributors will submit their work for publication in a formal journal, and the PLoS Journals will welcome these submissions.

Contributions that will be welcome at PLoS Currents: Influenza include research into influenza virology, genetics, immunity, structural biology, genomics, epidemiology, modeling, evolution, policy and control. The manuscripts will not be subject to peer-review, but unsuitable submissions will be screened out by a board of expert moderators. This policy will enable rapid publication of research.

The path to publishing original scientific research is often long and tortuous.  A manuscript describing the findings is prepared and submitted to a scientific journal (such as Nature, Cell, Journal of Virology). The manuscript is assigned to two or three expert reviewers, generally scientists involved in the same area of research. If their reviews are favorable, the paper is published. Usually additional experiments are called for, which may require additional time to complete. Many months to a year may pass before the paper is published, although some manuscripts (e.g. those on 2009 pandemic influenza) may be expedited. The point is that PLoS Currents: Influenza will allow everyone – including non-scientists – to read about research soon after the authors have prepared the paper.

PLoS Currents: Influenza is a terrific idea, and I welcome this venture with great enthusiasm. I hope that PLoS Currents will grow to include other areas of science. But Varmus warns:

Given that the contributions to PLoS Currents are not peer-reviewed in detail, however, the results and conclusions must be regarded as preliminary. In time, it is therefore likely that PLoS Currents contributors will submit their work for publication in a formal journal, and the PLoS Journals will welcome these submissions.

During peer review of submitted manuscripts, new experiments may be suggested that change some of the conclusions of the research. Hence, the papers that appear in PLoS Currents: Influenza may be different from final versions that are published elsewhere.

I wonder how other scientific journals will react to submissions of manuscripts that have appeared in PLoS Currents. Many journals do not accept manuscripts that have already appeared elsewhere. For example, the instructions to authors for the Journal of Virology state:

By submission of a manuscript to the journal, the authors guarantee that they have the authority to publish the work and that the manuscript, or one with substantially the same content, was not published previously, is not being considered or published elsewhere, and was not rejected on scientific grounds by another ASM journal.

It’s time for scientific journals to change this policy, and allow for preliminary publication at sites such as PLoS Currents. Rapid and open-access publication will drive research forward and help inform and educate the public about science.

  • Michael_Day

    I was just having a conversation with a colleague about this idea of rapid publication/access. The only problem that she could see was that in certain cut-throat research areas (she just happens to work with influenza), researchers may be very unwilling to share any results that are the least bit “preliminary”. Sort of like saying a bit too much about your research ideas at a meeting…

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    I was thinking the same – reveal your results too early before
    official publication, and run the risk of giving your competitors an
    edge. This is the old school of research at work. It will have to
    change, in my opinion – results will have to be shared, and there will
    have to be less dependence on the individual ego to drive work
    forward. Science is becoming too complex for one group to think they
    can do it all – it must be collaborative going forward.

  • peterbinfield

    Regarding the question implied in this statement: “the papers that appear in PLoS Currents: Influenza may be different from final versions that are published elsewhere.” – if this were to happen then provided the final paper was published in an Open Access title (which allows anyone to re-post the article in any way and anywhere you want) then the PLoS Currents platform will allow the authors to simply update their Current's contribution with the finally published paper. The oridinal Currents piece would remain, but it would be noted that a newer (more correct?) version exists.

    Pete Binfield (Managing Editor of PLoS ONE)

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Thank you for that clarification – it's important to know that the
    Currents papers can be updated to the final version.

  • http://twitter.com/gsgs2 guenter stertenbrink

    can't you somehow get your ideas “patented”, so if someone else writes about it
    he/she has to give proper credit and your contribution is still appropriately credited ?
    How does benefit from publishing work anyway, is it being paid or does
    it help in the career ?

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    In the US (and I'm not a lawyer, so if there are any reading, correct
    me) if you publish, at least in science, you cannot patent. The patent
    has to be issued first. The problem is that this always takes a long
    time and science is moving so fast now that people want to publish
    quickly. It's important to publish in science for several important
    reasons. First, publishing is how ideas and results are disseminated.
    In the early days of microbiology (Koch) failure to spread new ideas
    quickly was a big problem. Second, publishing is important in order to
    get grants to run your laboratory. Papers are proof that you can be
    productive, have good ideas, and get work done. Finally, papers are
    important for obtaining tenure at colleges and universities. One of
    the factors that the tenure committees look at are the number and
    quality of publications. Tenure = having a permanent job.

  • gsgs

    They should change the patenting/copyright laws, so people can talk about their ideas
    freely without being afraid they could be “stolen”.

    If I had a paper but can't benefit from it wrt. grants,tenure , could I then sell it to others who can ?
    Is there a (black) market for papers ? Are there companies who create papers
    and sell them ?
    That would be nice, if published papers were rated by “traded worth”, so we can see
    what's being considered important by the market.

  • gsgs

    isn't it strange, how these researchers avoid public discussion of their (unfinished)
    work and ideas ? I could find no forum or mailing list with discussion.
    Apparantly they are afraid someone could steal their ideas and publish earlier ?!
    I think this was different, when I frequented math and programming forums (before 2006).
    So much secrecy in bio-science, the withheld sequences, the publishing delays.
    It must have a negative impact on research when you can't discuss
    ideas openly.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    The problem of scientists, including bioscientists, sharing data is
    huge. Nature has a special issue on this called 'Data Sharing':
    http://www.nature.com/news/specials/datasharing…. There are
    many reasons why they don't openly discuss their work before
    publication, including fear of being scooped, and the fact that public
    databases don't count when it comes to being evaluated for tenure. One
    of my colleagues here told me that in physics papers are more openly
    shared, but I can't comment as I'm not in that field. Suffice it to
    say that this needs to change. After nearly 30 years in bioresearch, I
    am completely tired of this selfish mentality. The fact that
    colleagues will not share reagents, ideas, or papers with me because
    they need them all to further their own grant and publication
    portfolio, and the size of their lab, is appalling. Sad to say that in
    the end, as David Baltimore said, science is driven by ego.

  • gsgs

    now we have this Canadian paper that seasonal vax increases the chance of getting
    mexflu (1.5-2 fold) . But it is secret, some Canadian officials may already know it,
    but apparantly not CDC let alone the public. It directly and immediately
    affected vaccine-recommendations.
    The details must be kept secret until publication and even the journal is secret.
    So, I assume the authors must somehow get money from the journal.

    Is that in the interest of those who paid for the research ?

  • gsgs

    now we have this Canadian paper that seasonal vax increases the chance of getting
    mexflu (1.5-2 fold) . But it is secret, some Canadian officials may already know it,
    but apparantly not CDC let alone the public. It directly and immediately
    affected vaccine-recommendations.
    The details must be kept secret until publication and even the journal is secret.
    So, I assume the authors must somehow get money from the journal.

    Is that in the interest of those who paid for the research ?