Dr. Alma Faust is a biomedical researcher by training, who earned her doctorate in medical sciences from Brown University, but has spent the majority of her career in research development, helping to pioneer strategies and tactics that helped researchers - and institutions - become more competitive with their grant funding efforts.
Faust started her career path as a grant administrator in The Department of Radiation Oncology Research at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center. While there, she discovered a particular love for the research development side of her work. At the time, there were only few individuals specializing in research development across academic institutions. But today, research development is one of the fastest growing fields in academic science, as more institutions recognize the power of research development to boost productivity and enable research endeavors.
Faust first saw great potential for preprints while serving as the Director of Faculty Research Activities for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Regularly interfacing with her colleagues in UIC’s basic science departments, including physics, she witnessed just how quickly science could move forward when preprinted research was posted instantly, unimpeded by the traditional peer review process.
It also turned out that preprinting added a lot of value in research development, especially as more grant-funding institutions began allowing preprinted research to be accepted as part of grant application packages.
Now as President of Faust Research Services, she regularly advocates using preprints to her client institutions in the biomedical field looking to secure funding for their research projects.
We met with Faust to get a research development expert’s perspective on how preprints can advance an institution’s research enterprise, strengthen grant applications, and move science forward more quickly.
What role can preprints play in elevating a university’s research enterprise?
Preprints allow universities to demonstrate their research output in near real-time. If you’re stuck in the cycle of submission and resubmission, the perception of your lab’s research productivity is going to suffer. Preprints allow the entire university to show their productivity and to show that their research is progressing. With traditional publishing, you can’t do that.
I also think preprints can play other dramatic roles. My background is in biomedical science. But in my position at UIC, I was suddenly thrown into the basic sciences crowd, including physics. One thing I realized quickly is that the pace at which physics research was moving forward was largely enabled by preprints. The physicists treated publishing in a traditional journal more like an afterthought. Their goal was to get their work out quickly and preprints enabled this. This realization was the first time I witnessed a scenario where the pace of research wasn’t determined by the pace of publishing. They eventually can publish in peer-reviewed journals, and many did, but the pace of their research was in no way determined by the pace of submission and resubmission cycles.
If you apply this scenario to biomedical science, you quickly realize that preprints may be even more critical for us. Negative findings are very important in biology and medicine. This is highly useful information that needs to go out into the field, yet it generally has a hard time finding a home in traditional journals. Preprints can play a critical role in helping biomedical scientists publish and share these negative findings.
Preprints have been wholeheartedly adopted in some disciplines, yet they’re relatively new to others. From someone who has had a bird’s eye view of a research enterprise, why do you think this is?
I don’t know why preprints took off in physics to the degree that they did, to the point that now publication in traditional journals is almost irrelevant. For me, it was eye opening to realize that preprints counted as regular papers in evaluations for hiring and promotion in certain basic science fields. I don’t know why the biomedical field has been much slower to adopt this approach. Could it have something to do with our over-reliance on peer review? I don’t think peer review is a bad thing, but I also don’t think publication should be dependent on peer review. I think biomedical scientists have this fear that if you let preprints run wild, you’re going to have a lot of bad data out there. But, if we take physics as an example, this fear has not been justified. If anything, the quality of research has increased since preprints became the standard way of dissemination.
Our lagging adoption of preprints may also be related to the level of comfort that the hiring and funding committees have with this way of publishing. I am hoping that by the time members of our generation get to be ‘decision makers’ in the field, we will be in the same place where physics is today.
Are preprints beneficial for grants and research development? If so, how?
From a research development perspective, I would say preprints are very important. This has been the case since 2017, when NIH first allowed preprints to be used in grant applications. So the second we could cite a preprint, our worlds changed. It went from “don’t bother with preprints, it won’t help us” to “preprint everything.” This also illustrates that until people in charge start changing their minds, it’s really hard for people in the trenches to do so. At the end of the day, you can produce preprints all day long. But if you can’t cite them in your grants and in your tenure package, they can’t help you. When that change at the NIH happened, suddenly our PIs could show preprints as a research product in a way that they couldn’t before. So now, we can have a grant due on a Friday and submit a preprint on a Tuesday. That preprint will be citable before the due date. It’s wonderful. This sort of speed is honestly not something we were used to in the grants business before.
What are some challenges that research development professionals might face at their own institutions in getting researchers to adopt preprints?
Right now, you have many established people who are not as familiar with preprints, so it’s going to be harder to convince them that there’s value in preprinting. But this idea of “you can cite it in a grant” is something that everybody understands. That has been very effective for broader acceptance.
In my field of biomedicine, a lot of our decisions are still connected to a journal’s impact factor for grants, promotion, hiring, tenure, and awards. I think Impact Factor has been a lazy way to do these evaluations. My hope is that this will be modified in the future. Instead, we should be looking at the value of the work, the contributions of the work to moving the field forward in a way that’s not biased by a journal’s impact factor.
I remember an analysis where researchers were looking at the number of citations from articles in high-impact journals over the course of time (1). The majority of articles in high-impact journals have few citations. Part of the reason is that we cannot, ahead of time, figure out what is a game-changing paper and what isn’t. This idea that we can predict them is our downfall. In a way, all we’re doing is just confirming our own biases. A lot of times, this leads us to exclude the most innovative work, because it can sound ‘nuts’ at first.
We don’t know what a game-changing paper is today, but we will ten years from now. And as scientists, our job should be to divorce ourselves from this idea that we can tell what’s going to be innovative and what isn’t, and I think we need to look at each work as its own entity and, frankly, let science be the judge.
Research institutions like the Francis Crick Institute are now recognizing preprints in researchers’ employment applications and reviews. Do you think more universities and research institutions should follow suit? Why or why not?
Absolutely. To me, that’s a no-brainer. Speaking from a biomedical science perspective, it’s absolutely the right direction for us. I will say that peer review has not protected us from what I would say is bad science, and I don’t think it can. And the idea that it should be is unfair to reviewers.
I think peer review is a wonderful aspect of science from a point of having conversations and listening to perspectives of other people outside your immediate circle to understand their thinking and how they are processing what you are producing - but that does not need to be related, in any way, to the actual preprint being out in public. That’s something that can happen after the work goes out. You can do it the same way we do it now in publishing. We can use that information to improve the preprint and improve our work.
So preprint reviews being part of employment and tenure reviews and honorary awards: That’s what I’m hoping we all move towards.
Grant-funded research is increasingly tied to outreach, and research in general is increasingly open access. Consequently, more research is being viewed by those outside the research community. How do you see preprints fitting in this new world of open science?
Outreach, to me, is about scientists actively engaging non-scientific communities, like local communities or patients who can benefit from the research. I don’t see a role for preprints in outreach, and I’ll tell you why. Preprints are highly specialized documents not made for non-specialist consumption. For me, if you’re going to do outreach, having a type of document that can translate preprints into something more digestible to a layperson is really the only way it can work.
Even for public policy experts and professionals, many of whom have PhD degrees, preprints are good as a reference, but you still need that information synthesized into something more digestible and more applied. Preprints are great as references to inform public policy, but there still needs to be an interim document that’s written. I also don’t think speed is always of interest when using research to guide public policy. Studies that inform public policy should have amassed some support and replication by the time they’re used this way.
But what else does it mean to be outside the research community? You can be a policy person; you can be a layperson; and you can just be a scientist from a different field. Cross-disciplinary influence is something that preprints are wonderful for, and I hope that continues at great speed.
On the subject of funding, how can preprints be strategically used to build funding for universities?
I think the adoption of preprints as a valid research product by funding agencies was a game changer. That’s not going to go away. It’s here to stay. Everyone loves it. Agencies love to be able to look at what people are doing. And when we’re doing grants, especially for NIH, there can be a very rapid turnaround between an original submission and a resubmission, not long enough for traditional publishing. So one way to show productivity between submissions is through preprints. That, in my view, has been a game changer for a lot of people. That’s why I think preprints, research development, and research funding will be going hand in hand.
How do you see preprints playing a role in scholarly publishing’s future?
There are a couple of things I struggle with when it comes to academic science. The first is not publishing negative results, and the second is not being able to correct the literature quickly enough. For example: the autism and MMR vaccine link started through a paper in The Lancet, which has an impact factor of 59. That paper was published in 1998, but it wasn’t retracted until 2010. It shouldn’t have taken 12 years for that erroneous paper, which probably cost lives, to be corrected.
But then turn this around to today. The Ivermectin study Research Square just dealt with. This was an erroneous preprint with bad methodology and insufficient data transparency. A graduate student in the UK discovered these issues and contacted Michele (Avissar-Whiting, Research Square’s Editor in Chief). After reviewing both the summary of problems and the manuscript, Michele took the preprint down within a day. That is a correction in literature I can get behind. That is the speed that we need. It should not take a dozen years and countless lives and money and effort. Even if it doesn't directly affect patients and care, bad science still leads us to invest effort in the wrong bucket. Indirectly, it’s going to cost lives because that money could have been spent on more worthy projects.
Help expand our conversation on preprints. Please share this article and your thoughts through social media. Start a conversation by clicking on your relevant social media icon(s) below.
1. Larivière, Vincent, et. al. “A simple proposal for the publication of journal citation distributions”. BioRxiv. September 2016. https://doi.org/10.1101/062109