arXiv at Lehigh
By Brian Simboli
Lehigh now joins the many institutions whose memberships help sustain the “eprint” server “arXiv”.
This posting explains why it is important to support it and provides some details about the member benefits. Then it discusses controversies surrounding preprints, including in the covid period. These issues should interest not just scientific researchers, but also journalists and persons interested in scholarly publishing.
What is arXiv?
Launched in 1991, arXiv is renowned for its role in providing open (free) access to preprints, articles not yet peer reviewed. arXiv also includes the peer-reviewed author’s version of articles accepted for publication. If a journal publisher allows it, an author may also place the publisher formatted version in arXiv. An arXiv representative mentioned that “a simple estimate is that roughly 2/3 of arXiv papers end up as published, refereed papers.”
Why is it important to support arXiv?
In March, 2019 arXiv and preprints were the topic of a lively faculty panel sponsored by Lehigh libraries. Now, through its membership, Lehigh now participates in “crowd-sourced” support for a publication channel that enables “open frontier, cutting edge disclosures of discrete findings within unfolding research agendas”. A way to establish priority of discovery is a long-standing need in science.
Institutional support for arXiv exemplifies initiatives necessary to reform aspects of the publishing landscape. The article linked above argues that we need a system that accommodates the huge proliferation of research reports, while reserving peer review for fewer and more papers that synthesize and review trends reported in preprints.
Finally, while there are a number of new preprint servers with the arXiv suffix -rXiv (see, for example, medRxiv, engrXiv, bioRxiv, PsyArXiv, and PaleorXiv), support for arXiv is important just from the standpoint of its longstanding presence and name recognition in the preprint space.
What are Lehigh’s membership benefits?
One benefit has been data about Lehigh’s use, which you may request. The data show significant usage in Astrophysics; Computer Science; Cond. Matter Physics; High Energy Physics; Mathematics; Other Physics; and Statistics. Less but overall growing use trends appears in economics; electrical engineering and systems science; quantitative biology; and quantitative finance. This data provides one window (among other possible ones) of how Lehigh researchers monitor new developments in their fields. At this point, arXiv does not provide a way to identify how many researchers at an institution submit arXiv preprints but is considering this as a possible member benefit.
Another arXiv benefit is member surveys, one of which will likely be available in the winter. arXiv provides other ways for users to submit feedback. The arXiv homepage at one point featured a “Global survey” concerning “how arXiv is perceived around the world”. You may email me comments about arXiv to the arXiv membership representative, who mentioned that “we may not be able to act on all feedback immediately, but we collect it in a database that helps guide future development.”
Information about arXiv’s future development plans is in the arXiv annual report, available every January. You may subscribe to the arXiv blog .
Preprints in the covid period
Preprint publishing should be of interest not just to researchers, but also journalists and journalism teachers, and anyone interested in popular scientific communication.
There has been popular news coverage of their use in a time when very rapid communication of epidemiological research about coronavirus is crucial. Their use for this purpose will only further accentuate concern about preprint use for research that bears directly on human well-being, such as biomedical areas
arXiv itself now features on its landing page “COVID-19 Quick Links”, not only to its own content, but also to medRxiv and bioRxiv. Obviously in response to concerns about potential journalistic abuses, arXiv claims: “Important: e-prints posted on arXiv are not peer-reviewed by arXiv; they should not be relied upon without context to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information without consulting multiple experts in the field.”
The question as to what extent journalistic abuse of biomedically related preprints is a problem is a great discussion topics for a science journalism class, as is the question how best to share epidemiological research in a time of pandemic.
The Future of Preprints
Other controversial issues surround preprints. In some fields that rely heavily on preprints and do not impact human well-being in immediately obvious ways, such as high energy physics, do preprints render peer reviewed publication redundant? To what extent do preprint servers “self-police”? I.e., would a self-respecting researcher or research group publish sub-par research? Should publication of preprints be rewarded in grant applications and the tenure process?
These and many other questions will become increasingly relevant as preprints use continues to expand in fields that—for whatever reason–have not traditionally relied on them.
[Many thanks to arXiv for providing answers, which appear above, to various questions.]