By Anna Funk It was embarrassingly recent that I realized that I had been conflating science communication (#SciComm) and science journalism in my mind…
By Helen Robertson, João Mello-Vieira, and Mariana De Niz
Publishing in the life sciences is changing. Over the past eight years, the posting and readership of preprints (non-peer-reviewed manuscripts) has seen a rapid and exponential growth across the biological sciences. Launched in 2013, the major life sciences preprint repository bioRxiv now hosts over 100,000 preprints, with close to 3,000 posted preprints and almost 3,000,000 downloads per month. Preprints are consistently gaining popularity across many life sciences disciplines, including developmental biology, cell biology, and biophysics.
The uptake of preprints by the biological sciences community can be attributed to several factors. Increasingly, scientists want to share their discoveries and hypotheses with their peers as quickly as they can, and this can be hindered by the lengthy duration of the peer-review process. Sharing manuscripts prior to peer-review and formal publication means that new work reaches its audience as soon as it’s completed, and it isn’t behind a paywall. Another benefit of posting a preprint of research is that authors can partake in constructive discussion within the scientific community, which can lead to manuscript improvement and greater visibility of their research. These benefits can be particularly useful for early-career researchers, who can cite preprints on funding or job applications as soon as they are deposited on a server and engage in an informal discussion with their peers about their new research.
But with the increasing number of preprints deposited on bioRxiv, as well as other repositories including medRxiv, F1000 Research, and Preprints with The Lancet, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of available information and miss out on relevant new research.
Enter: preLights. Launched in 2018, preLights is a community supported by The Company of Biologists, which provides a platform for highlighting and discussing new preprints across the biological sciences. The preLights community is a carefully selected group of early-career researchers (think Ph.D. students all the way to junior group leaders) with a shared interest in reviewing and communicating new research. In just over three years, preLights has highlighted nearly 1,100 preprints, from zoology and ecology to molecular and synthetic biology.
In each preLights post, you’ll find a summary of the preprint, the reasons it was selected, and the preLighter’s thoughts on its significance. All preLighters are encouraged to contact the author of the preprint they have highlighted to ask for the author’s answers to questions they have about the work. The vast majority of authors contacted by preLighters are glad to learn their preprinted research has been highlighted and are very happy to answer questions or provide further insight, which we publish at the end of the preLights post. We are thrilled that over two-thirds of our recent preLight posts have author comments and believe that preLights is a valuable resource for encouraging discourse around new research. Importantly, we view this as different from the peer-review process, and more akin to the discussion that occurs at conferences or on Twitter.
It is important to note that all preLighters are volunteers who work on their posts in their free time and that writing a preLight post is not a trivial time commitment. In fact, a recent survey of our preLights community found that the average length of time spent working on a post was between six and eight hours, emphasizing the careful reading and thought that goes into writing a preLight. For preLighters, being part of the community is a great opportunity to stay up-to-date with new research, build their scientific network, and gain experience in scientific writing and editing.
preLighter João Mello-Vieria, postdoc at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas, Madrid, is drawn to papers on microbiology and parasitology that are conceptually innovative. “After writing a highlight, I always receive feedback from other preLighters or our community manager. Most importantly, all of the authors that I’ve contacted are very helpful and are delighted to support our work. Their contributions always make our post more appealing and teach us something new,” he says. For Mariana De Niz, postdoc at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, being a preLighter is an opportunity to expand her scientific interests outside of what she normally investigates. Diversity is also key to her preLights experience. “What I enjoy most as a preLighter, in addition to engaging with authors and novel science, is working with a group of preLighters that is extremely diverse in its composition in terms of gender, expertise, scientific interests, geographical location, and career stages. I also believe this diversity among preLighters ensures that the coverage of preprints selected by preLights is highly inclusive in all respects.”
In return for the time and effort that preLighters spend on their posts, preLights aims to support and promote the early-career researchers who make up the preLighter community, and each member can create their own profile on the preLights website. In addition, preLights runs a regular “Meet the preLighter” series, which aims to profile some of the most regular preLights contributors, and a more recent “Preprints by preLighters” feature, which highlights new preprinted research by members of the preLights community. Beyond specific scientific topics, the preLights community has come together to address COVID-19-related preprint coverage and to highlight the work of women in STEM for International Women’s Day.
If you are interested in new research and want to broaden your science writing experience, we are always on the lookout for new preLighters. Details of how to apply can be found on our website.
Helen Robertson is the community manager for preLights. She obtained her Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from University College London and subsequently worked as a postdoc at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the University of Chicago. She has a long-term interest in open science and science communication and has written a number of articles on popular science and science in society for various outlets.
Mariana De Niz
Mariana De Niz is a Human Frontier Science Programme (HSFP) postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, Portugal, soon joining the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. Mariana obtained her Ph.D. in Cell Biology from the University of Bern, Switzerland, where she focused on the malaria parasite and on developing microscopy methods for cell biology. She later did a postdoc at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Glasgow funded by EMBO and SNSF still in malaria, and later moved to Lisbon to study African trypanosomes. Mariana has been a preLighter since 2019 and has been active in this and various other initiatives promoting open science through her career.
João Mello Vieira is a post-doctoral fellow at the National Centre for Cancer Research in Madrid, Spain, focusing on the role of telomeres in infectious diseases. João obtained his Ph.D. in Microbiology and Parasitology, from the University of Lisbon, Portugal, where he studied the malaria parasite during the liver stage of infection. João has had an interest in science communication, being a preLighter since early 2021.