Cancer Research UK recently announced that it will encourage researchers to deposit preprints of their publications and will allow them to cite preprints and non-traditional research outputs in their applications.
The announcement comes just after a period of discussions among the scientific community and funding agencies that prompted several funders to publicly state their support of preprints and allow researchers to showcase their non-peer reviewed work in funding applications.
Preprints are complete scientific manuscripts (often also being submitted to a peer-reviewed journal) that are uploaded by the authors to a public preprint server without formal peer review. It’s argued that preprint servers facilitate the rapid, direct and open delivery of new knowledge to the worldwide scientific community before formal validation through peer review.
While posting papers on preprint servers has been common practice for the physical sciences for over 20 years, preprints have only recently started to appear in the life sciences. The number of biology preprint servers have increased, many journals now accept submissions directly from preprint servers and it is acknowledged that while appreciated by researchers, the peer review process can slow down publication. All these factors might have prompted the increasing discussions around the use of preprints and have resulted in an increase of biology preprints online.
Peer reviewed journal articles are one of the main outputs of research when it comes to research assessment, career progression and promotion. Whether or not a paper has been peer-reviewed continues to be a relevant factor in readers’ and funders’ own critical assessment of its content. However, the time from submission to publication in a traditional scientific journal can be lengthy, sometimes slowing progress in medical research by delaying the dissemination of results.
Cancer Research UK views the use of preprints as a new way to speed up dissemination of findings, give credit to researchers who can claim their work early and ultimately accelerate progress in cancer research. Preprints also represent evidence of the productivity of a researcher, in particular for early career researchers who have not yet published in mainstream journals.
Maximising research impact
Cancer Research UK is the largest independent charity in Europe funding cancer research and is committed to accelerating progress through funding the best science in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
To maximise the impact of research, it is critical that we facilitate open and unrestricted access to the published research and ensure that all research findings are put to maximum use by the cancer research community and are translated into patient benefit. Our policies on open access and data sharing have been in place for some time to ensure that researchers commit to these principles.
In addition to welcoming preprints in grant applications, and in accordance with the principles of DORA, we ask our researchers to showcase all outputs of their research. These can include datasets, software, protocols and methods, or policy papers.
At Cancer Research UK we also place great emphasis on data sharing and expect that data arising from the research we fund are managed and made available as widely and freely as possible to maximise public benefit. That’s why we require a data management plan at application stage, which is reviewed as part of the funding decision. It is now our aim to go one step further and assess how data are actually shared at the end of a grant, if and how they have been re-used and to put in place mechanisms to measure the impact of data re-use.
Re-thinking research assessment and evaluation
While we believe that peer reviewed research papers will remain a key type of research output that informs research assessment, it is legitimate to think that outputs other than research articles will grow in importance in assessing research effectiveness in the future.
DORA was set up in 2012 by the American Society for Cell Biology to address the need to improve the ways in which the output of scientific research is evaluated by funding agencies, academic institutions, and other parties. While many funders, including Cancer Research UK, have been encouraging improved practices in research assessment, the methods to evaluate research have not changed much.
We believe it is time to foster a change in practice and are working towards implementing the DORA principles at different levels.
In addition to updating our guidelines and submission system to allow researchers to cite all research outputs in support of their proposals, we encourage researchers to showcase their research via publication of research outputs other than journal publications once their grants have ended; we encourage them to use permanent identifiers for all outputs; we require researchers to share the data behind published research findings; and we are committed to ensuring that funding committee members and reviewers consider the content of research articles and other outputs rather than rely on publication venue as a quality measure.
Moreover, we recognise there is a need to use a variety of metrics in evaluating research. These may include measuring translation into treatments, media mentions, patents, data re-use, reproducibility, or impact on policy for example. This is a challenging undertaking, but Cancer Research UK is committed to accurately measuring outputs and improving the way research is evaluated and is working to develop a broad suite of metrics that work for CRUK at each stage of the impact pathway.
Of course a lot of work will need to be done to engage and encourage reviewers, committees and researchers to adopt new practice. More importantly, decisions on research impact assessment and incentives for researchers to report their findings in a more open way will be key to driving a behavioural change. Our aim is to drive patient impact and help researchers to generate the greatest impact for patients. Good research practice, open behaviour and accurate research evaluation will certainly help achieve this goal.