Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017, Public Library of Science
'Preprints' have long been used as a way for scientists to share their work prior to publication, however, they have not been without opposition. Credit: Finn Årup Nielsen, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064841 and OpenClipart-Vectors, Pixabay

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics have long used "preprints" - preliminary versions of their scientific findings published on internet servers for anyone to read. In 2013, similar services were launched for biology, and many scientists now use them. This is traditionally viewed as an example of biology finally catching up with physics, but following a chance discovery in the archives of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Matthew Cobb, a scientist and historian at the University of Manchester, has unearthed a long-forgotten experiment in biology preprints that took place in the 1960s, and has written about them in a study publishing 16 November in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

In 1961, the National Institutes of Health in the USA set up what were called "Information Exchange Groups" (IEGs); researchers would send in their draft papers or discussion documents, which would then be duplicated and sent out to a list of subscribers. The system eventually involved over 3,600 researchers around the world and saw the production of over 2,500 different documents, on millions of pages of paper.

The experiment was shut down in 1967 following a sustained campaign by and learned societies, just as physicists were discussing developing a similar kind of system. The growth in the IEGs and their possible extension into physics had provoked systematic opposition from such as Nature and Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press, as well as learned societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publishers of Science magazine).

Vitriolic editorials were published in Science and Nature as a number of journals refused to consider articles that had been circulated as preprints. The publishers claimed that they were able to guarantee the accuracy and probity of scientific findings, and that the widespread adoption of preprints threatened the existence of journals. Many researchers felt that the real issue was the potential threat to publishers' income and prestige.

The widespread circulation of preprints in physics really took off in the 1990s with the appearance of the World Wide Web and a server called arXiv. Biology continued to lag behind, and a further attempt to launch preprints in 1999 met with similar hostility from publishers and learned societies and was soon abandoned. It is only recently that preprints have been widely accepted by scientists and by journals.

This story, unknown to all but a few historians of documentation and some old-timer scientists, shows how publishers and academic vested interests have opposed the open circulation of knowledge in the name of money and prestige. It also shows how even old-style technology was able to bypass the traditional gate-keepers of science and the barriers they created.

Explore further: Are preprints in paleontology really that radical?

More information: Cobb M (2017) The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s. PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003995.

Related Stories

Are preprints in paleontology really that radical?

September 8, 2015

The topic of preprints for paleontologists has gotten a nice flurry of discussion this week, thanks to a blog post by Liz Martin-Silverstone. Preprints, for those who are not familiar, are non-final and unpublished versions ...

The best of both worlds—preprints and journals

October 27, 2016

For some time now PLOS has discussed new initiatives designed to accelerate research communication, from development of Aperta, our streamlined manuscript submission system that facilitates a faster time to first decision ...

The arXiv at 20: a global resource

September 28, 2011

As the e-print arXiv of scientific publications celebrates its 20th anniversary, what started as an effort to "level the playing field" for researchers has created a whole new playing field on which the white lines are still ...

Recommended for you

Growing a dinosaur's dinner

July 13, 2018

Scientists have measured the nutritional value of herbivore dinosaurs' diet by growing their food in atmospheric conditions similar to those found roughly 150 million years ago.

A statistical study of the hot streak

July 12, 2018

An international team of researchers has conducted a statistical analysis of hot streaks to learn more about this mysterious facet of human nature. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes how they ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Nov 18, 2017
Beware the Gatekeepers of Knowledge as they will happily let you destroy yourself and surroundings if you do not pay them their due and stick to THEIR Theories!
not rated yet Nov 19, 2017
This is all about greed, which is stopping good creativity. Even arXiv has its issues as you have to be a post grad to publish anything. For the amature scientists like myself we have only google docs and quora to discuss on. I would actually pay to have expert advice from Dr/Prof to help me with my ideas on Universal Field Theory (based on time as complex number and iherently circular, similar to dual-time theories). So far all I have managed to get was some egotistic comments, or people too busy to reply to a "noob". What I would give to just be able to chat with those in the know without getting trolled online.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Nov 20, 2017
Even arXiv has its issues as you have to be a post grad to publish anything
you don't have to be a grad student, you just have to be verified or endorsed
the grad student comment on the help pages is just the example they used

i know of authors who are not grad students - my daughter published in her second year of college
For the amature scientists like myself we have only google docs and quora to discuss on
try academia - there are also some other sites you can hit up like brainly, weekly space hangout or Universe Today, which operate forums or other sites/channels which will put you in touch with others who are either amateur or professional scientists

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.