Kater Hake has been conducting and managing plant science research for more than 40 years. For 15 of those years, he has served as VP of Agricultural & Environmental Research at Cotton Incorporated, the world’s largest cotton commodity group. Each year, he oversees and distributes roughly $10 million in research funding that ultimately helps improve cotton grower’s profitability by maximizing their yields, minimizing losses from bugs, diseases, and other pests - and mitigating cotton production’s impact on the environment.
Like many researchers outside the clinical and physical sciences, Hake began to recognize preprints’ potential for his own plant and agricultural sciences community, which has not yet fully adopted preprinting. Hake sees preprints’ potential for rapidly advancing research, protecting it from intellectual property theft, and making it available to agriculture’s broad, interconnected community of scientists and industry professionals.
Hake connected with Research Square’s Phil Bogdan for a question-and-answer session that yielded some fresh and unique perspectives on preprints from a veteran plant scientist’s point-of-view.
When did you first learn about preprints, and what was your first impression of them?
I knew about preprints for quite a while, but I wasn’t making extensive use of them until the COVID pandemic brought preprints to the top of my attention. The research community suddenly had a big problem and needed to develop solutions, like vaccines, very quickly. Preprints created a space on the web for innovation, where novel and traditional approaches were brought into the conversation. It became obvious to me that preprinting was well-suited for that purpose.
What are some of the ways that preprints can be useful in the plant and agricultural sciences?
In the agricultural sciences, it often takes three to five years in order to fully conduct research, thanks to yearly growing cycles. Over long periods of time like this, students move on. Faculty move on to solve different problems, and they don’t always encapsulate their research in a durable paper. I think that’s a real loss. I’ve come to believe that we need to push as much as possible to get ag research into some durable form. Preprints can be that form, as long as preprints are permanent.
Also, science is globalizing even further, yet so many different research communities in the plant sciences already have specialty niches of journals that they like to publish in and read through. Researchers target their literature searches to only those few journals they’re interested in. With plant science articles available as preprints, it takes little time to find and pull up everything that’s new in cotton—or other crops—and scan for germane topics.
I remember a great quote from Dan Hillel, an Israeli scientist who became a World Food Prize laureate in 2012. I remember him being a breakfast speaker at a big conference for agriculturalists, and he was bemoaning the state of specialization in research. He said, “We’re going to the point where some people know everything about nothing and others know nothing about everything.”
He brought up a really great point. It’s very important that researchers specializing in one area—like soils or weeds or bug pests or plant diseases—that they understand the broader scientific context of their work, because it’s all interconnected. That’s looking at more than one journal and seeing research across specialties. Preprints can help researchers get out of their niches and get them to see the broader picture.
What are some of the broader ways you see preprints as useful or beneficial?
Research has been traditionally made available to a small group of people in the know. These are almost always scientists working in that same research space or subject area. Preprints open up that view to a much broader audience, like the wider research community and the public. In many ways, it democratizes the information.
Another general advantage of preprints is that they’re not behind a paywall. It allows scientists to make broader claims than they would in the final paper, as well as create an innovation space that can expand innovation. Indirectly, that’s what we’re trying to do: Put info into the public domain so that it’s not locked up behind patents or litigation. When you have a preprint, you have a little more flexibility in speculating how that novel science can be used.
When do you encourage preprint use among the researchers you fund?
We try to anticipate intellectual property challenges, where our funded research could lead to useful innovations that might be patented underneath the scientist. We’ll actually run a cursory Freedom-to-Operate Lite investigation to understand what the patent landscape looks like. And depending on the results, we encourage the scientist to get the information out there right away as preprints. That’s a specific case where we’re concerned the slow process of publication would allow someone to come in and file a patent before publication. It’s one of the more important roles that preprint servers play in getting information out there early. Other than that, nothing too formal, but it is encouraged.
Preprints have been around for decades. And in some disciplines, like physics and computer science, they have been a natural step in research publication for many years. Why do you think preprinting is not yet common in the plant sciences?
That’s another good question. I really don’t know why preprinting hasn’t caught on in the plant sciences.
What would you say to plant science researchers who don’t yet publish preprints?
I’d encourage preprints in any arena. Their use in fast-moving sciences opened up a lot of eyes about the importance of preprints in getting information out - along with the transparent acknowledgement that these are not peer-reviewed articles. Even with issues that are not fast moving, the people that are intimately impacted by that research, it’s an urgent need for them. Cutting-edge information is favorable, whether you’re a scientist, a grower impacted by a pathogen, or a consultant getting a glimpse of the research. Preprinting is a logical step in the research process that researchers should consider, particularly in fields that are timely.