Rapid sharing of influenza research

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 Given that the contributions to PLoS Currents are not peer-reviewed in detail, however, the results and conclusions must be regarded as preliminary.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.