Journals: Don’t embargo papers that have already appeared as preprints. Here’s why.
The ever-changing world of scientific publishing can be a messy and confusing place, full of unintended, if not unanticipated, consequences. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) learned that today, the hard way.
Here’s what happened: PNAS had a paper on human evolution embargoed for this coming Monday, at 3 p.m. Eastern, as is their custom. But a little after 3 p.m. Eastern today, the journal sent out an alert to its media list saying that the embargo on the paper, “Genetic evidence for natural selection in humans in the contemporary United States,” was being lifted immediately.
Why? I asked. Because, I was told, a site had reported on the study today. If you go to that site, you’ll find what seems to be a report on the PNAS paper. But if you Google Translate it from Russian — which I had to, despite my name — you won’t see any references to PNAS. You’ll see reference to a paper in bioRxiv with the same title, and with the same author, Jonathan Beauchamp, as the PNAS paper.
I was a bit puzzled, so I asked PNAS why mentioning the bioRxiv paper — which has been available since May 5 — would break the embargo:
The content of the two versions is essentially the same, which is why we decided to lift the embargo.
Fair enough, but…PNAS knew that when they embargoed the final version. And that’s what they did wrong here.
PNAS gets points for allowing researchers to post their work on preprint servers such as bioRxiv before they’re peer reviewed, something a lot of people — including me — support but that some journals find problematic. But at the risk of repeating myself, you can’t embargo something that’s freely available. And since PNAS admits that there’s very little difference between the two versions — which actually isn’t that surprising, given the results of this study — they really shouldn’t have embargoed this. (And they have been through similar situations before, albeit not with preprints.)
I’d suggest they — and other journals that will accept preprints — remember this episode next time they consider embargoing a particular paper.