Ban on pre-printing in grant applications deemed “just plain ridiculous”

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Australian conservationists study the distribution of seagrass beds at low tide in Coronet Bay, Victoria.Credit: Izzet Noyan Yilmaz / Alamy

Australia’s leading research funder has declared more than 20 scholarship applications ineligible because they mentioned preprints and other non-peer reviewed papers, prompting outcry from scientists who say the move is a blow to open science and will hamper careers.

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the use of preprints to the fore, researchers say the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) position – which limits applicants’ ability to refer to the latest research – is out of step with publishing practices and at odds with foreign funding agencies that allow or encourage the use of preprints.

Over the past week, researchers have caught on twitter indignant, describing the general decision as “myopic”, “simply ridiculous”, “cruel”, “astonishing”, “outdated” and “heartbreaking”.

Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Sydney, who is currently funded by ARC, argues the decision is unreasonable and unethical. “The country’s leading research funding body is potentially throwing valuable research into ridiculous technicality,” he says.

End of career move

The CRA did not respond to specific questions from Nature on its rationale for excluding preprints, or confirming how many applicants were deemed ineligible as a result, but a spokesperson said the rule “ensures that all applications are treated the same,” adding that “issues of ‘eligibility can arise in several ways ”.

In a tweet posted on monday, the funder responded to the influx of complaints by stating, “Thank you to everyone who contacted the CRA to provide your disciplinary perspective on including pre-impressions in funding requests” and ” we are looking into the issues raised and will respond as soon as we can ”.

At least 23 researchers – including 7 Nature contacted for comment – were deemed ineligible because they referred to preprints in applications to two prestigious CRA funding programs, which can make or break careers. Some will never be allowed to apply again and will say their careers are indeed over, as application attempts are limited to two for Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards and three for Future Fellowships.

A preprint, as defined by the CRA, is a manuscript, submitted to a journal or other publication, that has not yet been peer reviewed. Previously, the CRA prohibited researchers from including preprints in the lists of their own publications; some researchers contacted by Nature say they understand the rationale for the rule of origin.

Now, under a rule introduced in September 2020, ahead of this year’s funding cycle, applicants are urged not to “include or refer” to preprints in “any part of” applications, even if they must. show how their proposal is timely and relevant. The CRA says this change “was communicated to academic research offices through webinars” when the grant cycles opened. However, the researchers argue that the rule change was not clearly expressed or defined in the instructions to candidates.

In publicly available reports, the CRA says 52 nominations were deemed ineligible for the two funding programs this year, but does not list the reasons.

“The innovation killer”

According to the researcher behind the ARC Tracker Twitter account, which has been in contact with 23 unsuccessful applicants, at least 14 of them were deemed ineligible because they referenced other authors’ preprints in project descriptions or methodology. Some simply cited technical papers hosted on preprint servers, but were never intended for peer-reviewed journals, said the researcher who chose to remain anonymous.

He’s an “innovation killer,” says one physicist who saw his application rejected and also spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity.

Physicists, astronomers and mathematicians have been sharing pre-peer review articles on the open-access arXiv preprint server for three decades. Preprints are now becoming common in many fields, such as ecology and social sciences. Their use in biomedical sciences has also exploded in the past 18 months, as researchers around the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew Bailes, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says ARC needs to modernize its process to reflect the urgent nature of thematic research shared in preprints. “If you didn’t refer to it, you’d be wrong to write the best scientific record possible,” he says.

Bailes, who has served on ARC’s review boards, says reviewers are able to judge the relative merits of preprints and articles. “Expert referees know when to treat something with suspicion, and when to recognize that the application is on top of the latest developments in the field,” he adds.

Citation of preprints in funding applications is common around the world – in Canada, Germany, Denmark and Spain, for example. The European Research Council also allows this practice.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health actually encourages researchers to use preprints precisely because they promote rigor, rather than decrease it, says cell biologist Prachee Avasthi of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Large-scale consequences

The researchers warn that the ARC rule could have dire consequences, for individual careers and Australian research as a whole. Martin Porr, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the situation is “deeply disturbing” and “demoralizing” for young researchers who have spent months developing applications.

One of the rejected applicants says the decision will end their careers because they were offered a permanent position conditional on being awarded a grant, but cannot resubmit their application as it was the second of the two authorized attempts. “It basically leaves me the choice to leave Australia or to leave academia,” they say.

The seven researchers turned down scholarships due to the new rule which spoke to Nature noted they would appeal the decision.

“Even if it were clearly described and applied fairly, that would be a terrible rule,” says an ARC fellow, who has also chosen to remain anonymous. They say they have the means to form a research team but are reluctant to do so in Australia, because of the “intolerable” funding system. “The talent is in abundance here, but not the support. “

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