One day in May 2014, while visiting his parents in Bulgaria, biologist Nikolai Slavov sat at his laptop and called up a free online archive of scientific papers called bioRxiv. Then, with a click of an “upload” button, he submitted the draft of a paper he’d written about his postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on the unexpectedly diverse structure of ribosomes, the cell’s protein-making factories. “I was mostly excited, but a little bit nervous” about sharing findings that hadn’t been scrutinized by peer reviewers, he says.
He didn’t worry for long. In a few hours, the manuscript appeared online for all the world to see. Within weeks, it had drawn hundreds of downloads, two dozen tweets, and a trickle of online comments. It also brought job offers. And in July 2015, months before a final peer-reviewed version of his paper appeared in the journal Cell Reports, Slavov accepted a tenure-track position at Northeastern University in Boston.
Posting that first-draft manuscript, or preprint, “clearly expedited and helped with my job search,” Slavov says. And he thinks the half-dozen preprints he’s posted since have helped turbocharge his career. Science journalists have covered his work, colleagues have proposed collaborations, and journal editors have invited him to submit papers.
Slavov represents the promise of a movement that is sweeping across the life sciences. Although physicists have been posting preprints for nearly 3 decades, many biologists have only just begun to widely share their unreviewed papers. The shift has been catalyzed, in part, by endorsements of preprint publishing from high-profile scientists, as well as the 2013 launch of the nonprofit bioRxiv by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York; bioRxiv now holds more than 15,000 papers. But in contrast to physics, where preprints took off without much fanfare or controversy, the leap into preprints is stirring strong passions in the hyper-competitive world…