Being rejected from the preprint server, bioRxiv, seemed like a new low for me.  But, I was heartened to know that I was in good company.  At least an explanation was provided by the bioRxiv team that “every submitted manuscript is examined by affiliate scientists to determine its suitability for posting. bioRxiv is intended for full research papers and on screening, our affiliate scientists determined that this manuscript fell short of that description.”  Fair enough.  I can’t say that I disagree with my esteemed colleagues who serve as affiliate scientists.  I know that there are other preprint servers as discussed in response to this tweet.  But, I’m less familiar with those alternatives and it’s not clear to me why we need multiple preprint servers.

Needless to say, the paper was also rejected from several academic journals.

At this point, the options for a manuscript are limited and the most probable fate is that the paper enters a dormant state on my google drive, occasionally encountered when searching for something else, to provide a reminder of the unrealized time and effort that had been exerted.

The paper we were trying to publish is not earth shattering.  We had encountered a persistent problem in trying to edit genome sequence and annotation files when analyzing whole genome sequencing data from organisms that we had genetically modified.  We developed a bioinformatic solution that has been useful for us and we made the code, and a web implementation, publicly available.   

We know that researchers outside of our institution have used this tool and we thought that reporting the resource, and demonstrating its utility, in a paper, would inform other members of the community who might benefit from its use. Furthermore, making and testing the tool, writing the paper, and submitting the manuscript all required effort.  Keeping the paper to ourselves represents a significant investment of time and resources with no return. 

The purpose of academic publishing is to create a permanent record of a scientific contribution that is of use to the wider community.  Traditionally, this record was in the form of a published paper report, which since evolved into an electronic facsimile of the same process.  In the digital era, methods have been developed to replicate the permanence of a paper version such as the use of digital object identifiers (DOIs).  

Until recently, a published paper was given an aura of authority by the fact that it had undergone anonymous peer review – a 20th century invention that is widely recognized to be deeply flawed, but nonetheless retains outsized importance.  The remarkable success of preprint servers like bioRxiv and medRxiv, and the demonstration that they have accelerated the dissemination of science during the COVID pandemic, has made clear that the process of anonymous peer review, as currently practiced by most scientific journals, may be unnecessary and outdated.

I was intrigued by the introduction of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which provide a means of defining a unique version of an electronic file.  An NFT provides a record of a unique copy of an electronic file that is retained on a ledger, using a decentralized blockchain technology, which can be viewed by anyone.  There have been a number of high profile demonstrations of how NFTs can create value for electronic files (see also Disaster Girl). But, when I saw that UC Berkeley was selling NFTs for their patents of Nobel Prize winning science, it occurred to me that minting an NFT for a scientific paper would be a means of creating a unique record of the presentation of a paper to the rest of the world. The goal in this case is not to sell the NFT, but to use the immutability of NFTs to create a permanent record of the electronic file and its public availability.

To test this idea, for the price of 0.00186 ethereum (US$3.78 at time of minting) we minted an NFT for our paper.  The NFT ensures that we have a record (and ownership) of the original digital file that is an instance of our paper.  By minting the NFT and recording this event using blockchain we can now consider the paper published.

Scientific publishing has been remarkably resistant to the changes brought about by the digital age.  When I was an editor at Nature Genetics in the early 2000s, I thought that the open access movement would soon end academic publishing as we knew it.  It has been disheartening to watch as publishing companies learned how to monetize open access leading to the cost of academic publishing reaching outrageous levels – a cost that is ultimately borne by the taxpayers who fund the majority of our research.  

The reasons that 20th century scientific publishing practices persist are complex, but it is our responsibility to find alternate approaches.  Preprint servers have been a major step in the right direction, but a rejection from bioRxiv makes it clear that these entities still serve as gatekeepers to the dissemination of information.   

Perhaps NFTs offer a new, less costly, and more equitable, means of publishing?

Access the publication here

Access the NFT here.


1 Comment

reform: Modify Reference Sequence and Annotation Files Quickly and Reproducibly – Genomics Core at NYU CGSB · 2021-07-22 at 7:02 pm

[…] reform has officially been published as an NFT. Read about this experiment in scientific publishing here. Access the reform publication (PDF) […]

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