For decades, scientists have wasted considerable amounts of time sending their hard-earned research to journals only to wait an eternity for reviews or even just get a straight-up rejection. And what happens if you try to address the comments made by the reviewers and your attempts still aren’t enough? Your paper gets rejected and you have to start the whole process again in a different journal. It is exhausting and wastes thousands of dollars in resources and time annually. But what can be done to stop this madness?

We caught up with Damian Pattinson, VP of Publishing Innovation at Research Square. If you haven’t heard of Research Square yet, go check out their website. They’re a business founded in 2004 with a mission to solve these critical problems facing science publishing. They offer different services to both researchers and publishers to streamline the whole publishing process, making it faster and more useful for everyone.

Who is Research Square?

Research Square started 15 years ago as a language-editing company called the American Journal Experts (AJE), set up to help non-native English speakers publish their research. It was launched by founder Shashi Mudunuri, who saw an opportunity for a company to help researchers get past the barrier of language and allow everyone to express their scientific discoveries.

“This business has since matured and partnered with several major academic publishers. We now have around 350 staff based in Durham, North Carolina. The business still is still primarily focused on language editing, but has evolved to offer other services through its R&D department.” ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Research Square
A few of the happy bunch at Research Square

The early days of Research Square R&D: independent peer review

What we found was that journals were not willing to outsource peer-review to that extent

The beginnings of this evolution saw Research Square move their efforts towards streamlining the current peer review system by organizing an independent peer-review process ahead of an author sending their paper to a journal. Authors would send their manuscript to Research Square and they would find reviewers to review the paper. The authors could then make changes based on these reviews and the revised manuscript, along with the reviewer comments, which would then be submitted to a journal to see if they would accept the revisions. The aim here was to reduce the redundancy in the system caused by continually submitting papers to different journals and waiting for review by doing these steps for the journal.

“What we found was that journals were not willing to outsource peer-review to that extent. Journals were still sending our revised manuscripts to peer-review. So, the reduction in waste we wanted to see just wasn’t there. We still offer this service but now only to publishers as a way to improve turnaround time to get reviewers on board.”

The current work of Research Square: integrity and ethics checks

We also developed checklists for reproducibility, data availability, and statistical rigor

Since Damian joined Research Square over three years ago, they have adapted to the needs of the authors and developed some innovative ideas to progress the peer-review and publishing process.

“Since I joined Research Square, I’ve been trying to expand on changes to the journal editorial process. I came from a publishing background; most recently having worked in the editorial team at PLoS, who don’t have the most traditional publishing methods. So, my previous experience was a good fit for progressing the work at Research Square.

“We initially came up with a series of checklists to assess manuscripts for integrity and ethics. We also developed checklists for reproducibility, data availability, and statistical rigor. These checklists break the manuscript assessment up into areas you can evaluate separately, and authors can then conduct revisions based on these checklists, and receive certifications for those areas.”

These checks act as a quick and easy way for authors to demonstrate that their paper has met high standards of, eg, reproducibility, data availability, and statistical rigor. Research Square have been extremely successful in performing these checks, for example they currently certify papers for reproducibility for all the the Nature Research Journals.

How do journals feel about reproducibility and are they behind improving the current system?

there is an overall move in the right direction when it comes scientific integrity and reporting within publishing.

The checks carried out by Research Square are not the same as peer review – they are more of an editorial check. Reproducibility has been a huge issue for journals, and they need a way to double-check and standardize submitted manuscripts to ensure that all papers published are showing robust data. Research Square helps by taking on this responsibility and checking that the author states things like where they obtained their reagents, how their experiments were standardized or randomized, and what controls were used.

“We are very lucky to be working with Nature, who are very much behind improving the current system to improve reproducibility. They have a great standing in this area, and their papers are very highly edited and robust. Not all journals will or can spend this amount of time on their papers, however. Many journals we speak to are becoming more and more concerned about reproducibility, so for sure there is an overall move in the right direction when it comes scientific integrity and reporting within publishing.

A quick Research Square brainstorming session

What you can expect from Research Square’s pre-print service?

The author can see exactly what is happening as soon as it happens. They can see the reviews as they come in, making the whole process more transparent

With all these services on offer (Research Square also make video abstracts – creating 2–3-minute animated videos for manuscripts to help authors communicate their work more broadly), they wanted to create a single place where researchers could access them all and share their work at the same time.

“What we did is to set up our pre-print server, a platform where the authors could post their research themselves and then prepare it for peer review. To drive adoption, we work directly with the BioMed Central (BMC) journals so when a paper submitted to a BMC journal, authors can opt in for this service, and the paper will be posted to the Research Square platform and the whole peer-review process unfold in real-time. The author can see exactly what is happening as soon as it happens. They can see the reviews as they come in, making the whole process more transparent.”

The uptake of people using the Research Square pre-print service is remarkably high, with around 48% of authors opting in and a growth rate of 50% per month. The process is more efficient, transparent, and authors can see comments from other researchers, which they can then choose to factor into their manuscript revisions.

What does the future hold for pre-prints?

I feel that pre-prints are the most exciting thing to happen to the industry since I started working in it

Pre-prints have been a common process for other academic fields for many years. Submitting your manuscript to a pre-print server allows authors to present their work, get feedback, and still put a paper through the peer review process for publication. Fields like physics have been using this system of community review for decades, however biological science has always been a bit behind the times.

“I feel that pre-prints are the most exciting thing to happen to the industry since I started working in it. It’s very hard to launch a new journal because of the need for brand recognition and prestige. Authors will always worry about sending their manuscript to new journals. One way to break through this and disrupt the industry is through pre-prints.”

“I think biologists are beginning to get used to the idea of posting their work before it is published. I think the growth we are seeing at the moment shows that researchers are up for it, and it feels like the people leading it right now are the people who drive change and innovation. When you see that, you see people following suit.”

What are the obstacles holding pre-print back?

You get to put an initial timestamp on your research and get feedback from your community

There was a time when journals were less likely to accept a paper that had been in pre-print, but this is no longer the case and in fact, many journals including Nature actively encourage posting a manuscript to pre-prints. Certain funding bodies are also very keen on the use of pre-prints. This is all a move in the right direction but what are the barriers pre-prints still face?

“There is a natural nervousness from people once you explain pre-prints to them. Their initial reaction is usually ‘Why would I do that?’ but when you highlight the benefits of pre-print, they usually come around to it. You get to put an initial timestamp on your research and get feedback from your community. The idea does still make a lot of scientists uncomfortable but for me, that’s just a culture change. I think as more people use these services the more other scientists will follow suit. There is definitely an overall behavioral change on the path to accepting pre-prints.”

Journals and peer review: what needs to change?

There are more and more papers being sent to review as the number of publications grow, something that is causing general fatigue in the community. Editors are struggling to find reviewers and there is so much time wasted in the current system. Perfectly adequate reviews are being collected but won’t be used if papers are simply rejected.

“Community review is one way to solve this and I think pre-prints will be the best way to do this. Comments from the community are usually well thought out and useful to the authors. There is still a great need for the community to assess one another’s work, but we haven’t yet broken through the one-editor, two/three-reviewer system for reviewing a manuscript.”

But what about the journals themselves? If community review takes off and everyone uses pre-print servers to host their research, will there ever come a day when we simply do not need the journals to publish research?

“People have been predicting the death of journals for a long time, but I think it is a very difficult system to disrupt. What I do think is that they will change and adapt. You will always need a way to know what to read; there is so much literature out there and having the journals there to curate what would best suit their readers and deciding who a paper is intended for is very beneficial for researchers. That curation is vitally important if you look at the number of papers published every day so the journals will always be well placed to serve this purpose, and this is something people will certainly be willing to pay for.”

The future for Research Square

Authors don’t need to just scrape through the review process, they can be in control and publish something they are proud of

Research Square is still in the process of developing their pre-print server and the services they offer through this. The future looks bright for the use of pre-prints as an established part of the peer review system but there is still a lot that can be improved upon.

“We want to grow the community review and third-party review to bring all the experience we have gained from the past and give the authors more control. Open access has meant that the author is a customer and what we want to do is build on that idea. The author should be in the best position to make sure the work they publish is of the highest quality. Authors don’t need to just scrape through the review process, they can be in control and publish something they are proud of. We’re hoping over the next year to see a lot more journals taking up our platform and these ideas. It’s going to be a really exciting time for us.”

It was great to catch up with Damian at Research Square and hear about what the team is up to. They’re a friendly, helpful organization with a clear passion for science and optimism to improve the publication system – something the world needs right now. So next time you are thinking of submitting a paper to pre-print, I hope you will look at the Research Square pre-print server and find out more about what they can do to help with your next publication.

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