Pritam Sukul is a senior medical scientist at the University Medicine Rostock in Germany, where he obtained his Doctor of Medical Science degree in Experimental Anesthesiology in 2017. He is also a consultative non-resident scientific advisor for the government of India and a 2013 recipient of the Marie Curie ESR Award, one of the most competitive and prestigious awards in Europe supporting the most promising young scientists in medicine.
In 2020, Sukul learned about preprints and Research Square by chance, while simply searching for a paper in clinical breathomics. Intrigued but skeptical, he delved into preprints further before deciding to publish a recent study by he and his colleagues on isoprene, a hydrocarbon produced by the human body, as a preprint. The study ultimately disproved the long-held belief that isoprene was produced through cholesterol biosynthesis, a significant finding in the medical world.
Within 24 hours, his research was published as a preprint on Research Square. Shortly after this, he received comments on the platform. Then other scientists began contacting him with the hope they could collaborate on future studies. Shortly after that, one of the largest online magazines in India reached out to him to learn more about his research.
His research was ultimately published in Heliyon, an open-access journal of Cell Press, offering scientifically accurate and valuable research across the life, physical, social, and medical sciences; but his preprinting experience underscored for him the importance of preprints, to the point where he feels that traditional scholarly publishing cannot move science forward quickly enough unless preprints are integrated into the publishing process.
Research Square’s Phil Bogdan met with Sukul to discuss his experiences and opinions on preprints, the current state of scholarly publishing, and how, in his opinion, preprints can integrate with journals.
Tell me about the first time you learned about preprints - and your initial experience with them.
I found preprints for the first time searching for a paper on clinical breathomics. The authors had preprinted it in Research Square. To be honest, I was not convinced at that time that I would personally publish something that was not peer reviewed, but I did have a paper that I was hoping to share with the scientific community. I’d first sent it to the iScience journal. They offered to transfer the manuscript directly to the clinical research section of the Heliyon, a sister journal of iScience, where it was eventually accepted without any APC. However, it was taking several weeks before online publication, which was quite a lag. I looked at the journal’s policies. I saw it didn’t have any conflict if you post a preprint. I first tried to contact a preprint server published by Elsevier; but it took about 10 days to get their initial response. Consequently, I tried Research Square, where I did not have to wait so long. It was [screened] and published within 24 hours. Research Square was very user friendly, easy, and hassle-free.
How have preprints benefited you personally and/or professionally?
For a long time, researchers believed that cholesterol biosynthesis gave rise to isoprene, which is naturally produced by the human body. In a paper produced with three of my colleagues, we reported that this fundamental concept was wrong. This was my first paper posted as a preprint, and it was published on Research Square in less than 24 hours. Soon after, other researchers from various areas of the “omics” disciplines—such as metabolomics, genomics, proteomics, and breathomics—started contacting me. That was surprising. I also got comments on Research Square and ResearchGate. And when I got an email from the media, I was really surprised. I became a front-page scholar on The Indian Rover, which is India’s largest literary web magazine. At first, I thought something was going wrong, but these people were authentic. That’s what preprints can do.
What is your opinion of the traditional scholarly publishing process?
Publishing in scholarly journals is a near-infinite loop, and it’s a process that transforms a researcher to a clerk for a while. You look for the journal where the article fits best. Then you look at the scope or aims and try to find out who the editors are. And if they find it fits with the journal and will be interesting to their readers, you get moved on to peer review. Nonetheless, prior to an initial submission, you have to format your manuscript according to each and every technical details/specifications of the journal its online submission portal - even including minute cosmetic details e.g. font size, line spacing, cgs/SI units, decimals, figures/table’s requirements and what not.
The second phase of the loop is peer review. It’s rigorous; they are often single blinded; and you can go through two to three peer-reviews. They know who you are. You don’t know who they are. There could be some individual bias or conflict of interest, the problem of rigor. If you don’t pass criteria, you get back to point zero and you start the loop again.
I would say there’s a chance you can overcome the issues of the conventional publishing process. But in the end, I find it quite time consuming and uncertain as it is. And if things go wrong, it’s very disappointing. Your career depends on what you’re publishing. If you’re asking for grants or funding from anywhere, they look at your published contributions to the field.
In your opinion, how can preprints support positive change in the scholarly publishing process?
The way preprints are expanding, I feel like traditional scholarly publishing alone cannot match the speed of communicating science like preprints. Preprints and traditional scholarly publishing will have to work together in order to match that speed.
If I wanted to start a journal, for example, I would set up submissions in a way where you could link the preprint to the submission system. Like with preprint platforms, this journal’s preprints could be discoverable by the entire scientific community, and the community can comment on them. Reviewers could see these submissions and comments, and they can find the best, most interesting articles and decide to peer-review them. This way, the science is communicated quickly, and the community - not just the reviewers - helps decide what is interesting and whose work gets published.
During COVID, 90% of pieces were published as preprints. It was almost impossible to communicate those research timely, without a fast-paced preprint service. Even two to three weeks isn’t enough time to fill this pressing need to move this science forward.
What are some of the challenges you see for preprints? How do you see preprint servers improving?
Nowadays, people can come up with all kinds of topics to publish on preprint servers. Maybe they involve dry lab work and a lit review. Maybe it’s a statistical test that a researcher chooses to define his/her hypothesis, done in a way that can literally take them anywhere they want to go with their work. In other words, some research could be completely rubbish and it still gets published on a preprint server.
There should be higher standards for preprint servers, possibly through independent evaluations. Validation transparency and reproducibility are important, and research without minimal standards in these areas should be filtered.
How can preprints support authors in traditional scholarly publishing?
Preprinting is far faster than the traditional publishing process. I think this process can be integrated into every publication, like with In Review, when you submit to a journal, everyone can see when and where you submitted.
You can also get manuscripts published in a preprint publishing platform independently of journal submissions. There are also no APCs (article processing charges). Researchers from middle- or low-income countries cannot afford high APCs. The APCs of high-impact journals can be even higher than the researcher’s entire one-year salary in some countries. Those who cannot afford those high APCs can get their works published as preprints for other researchers to see and comment on. They also get a DOI and thereby can showcase the novelty of their contribution. They can cite their preprints and others, all without having to wait for peer review.
Why do you choose to publish your preprints specifically on Research Square?
Well, I would prefer Research Square, because not only is the formatting and uploading easy to do, but the [staff is] very responsive. They keep you informed of the steps and how they are handling your submission. Moreover, they are trying to [assess] articles via minimal reporting standards upon methods and/or analysis. Nevertheless, our research group and collaborators take cumulative decisions on the destination of a manuscript.
What are some ways you’ve seen preprints benefit the scientific community and the public at large?
Thanks to preprint servers like Research Square, we can look at preprints that are not available in other scholarly platforms. You can contact the authors and discuss their topic further, even while someone is waiting six months to get that paper published. Without preprints, the knowledge is locked. It also helps with networking - a lot. To be honest, preprints are like a continuous conference for me. I’m constantly getting new information.
Preprints can also help shape policy faster. I write policy papers, as well as science papers, and many of my colleagues in public health also use them. I work with many interdisciplinary fields where we do policymaking. I see so many people with so many interesting thoughts and ideas, and they often reference a preprint server. I know when I submit to Research Square, there’s a chance that it’s online in 24 hours. It’s more important for us to make the research available to read. For such a time of crisis when policymaking needs to move quickly, preprints are the best option in my opinion.
I think a preprint server is the best place for any kind of research. No matter which field of medicine or science - physics, biology, chemistry, or wherever.
Do you think preprints should be a regular step in the scholarly publishing process?
Yes, I really think they should. As I mentioned, journals should make platforms for preprint servers and link them to the journals. Then the journal decides whether to publish in the meantime. They could see the comments from others. It’s a very honest approach. That could be the future in my opinion, but there should be more screening.
What other thoughts would you like to share about preprints or Research Square?
When I see the key people at Research Square, you have a frame for women empowerment. Many staff at Research Square are women. They’re nothing less than women in science, because they’re moving science forward. When I think of the platform, I think of that. You don’t have to be doing research to have a big influence in science. I think Research Square is an example of this.