Updated: January 13, 2022 7:03:47 am
Over the last two years, non-science specialists and other lay people have read references to “bioRxiv” and “medRxiv” in news reports on the Covid-19 pandemic, frequently described as “preprint servers”.
Both bioRxiv and medRxiv, which have played an invaluable role in quickly disseminating the conclusions of scientific research on the coronavirus to doctors, scientists, and health policymakers around the world, were inspired by arXiv.org, the original preprint server that published its two millionth paper — a numerical analysis titled ‘Affine Iterations and Wrapping Effect: Various Approaches’ — earlier this month.
arXiv — pronounced ‘archive’ because the ‘X’ stands for ‘chi’, the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet — is a gigantic online repository of research that physicists, astronomers, computer scientists and mathematicians among others find indispensable.
For 30-plus years
arXiv “started out in 1989 as an e-mail list for a few dozen string theorists”, according to a long profile published on January 10 in Scientific American magazine. In 1991, physicist Paul Ginsparg, who was then a technical staff member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, automated his colleague Joanne Cohn’s e-mail list, turning it into a repository which anyone could access or submit to, says the article.
Thus was born arXiv, to which as many as 500,000 papers had been submitted by 2008. It took only six years until 2014 for this number to double to a million, and seven more years to double again.
Ginsparg is now at Cornell University, where arXiv is also located legally. Cohn, whose exchange of string theory manuscripts seeded the idea of arXiv, is at UC Berkeley.
Fast and free
While the material posted on arXiv is not peer-reviewed, it allows the wider community of researchers to circulate their findings quickly and freely pending peer-review. Research could appear online within a day of submission, compared with perhaps several months at the traditional journals. This holds true for the life sciences preprint servers bioRxiv and medRxiv as well — and made an immense contribution to speeding up biomedical research in the literally life-and-death situation of the pandemic.
“It’s like the backbone for our field,” the Scientific American article quoted Alex Kohls, head of the Scientific Information Service at CERN, as saying. “It’s not only a tool for physicists and computer scientists — it has had an impact on the overall scholarly communication process.”
The Scientific American quoted the work of Lanu Kim, who led a study that found that authors of highly-cited arXiv papers were increasingly likely not to publish in a traditional journal at all. Kim’s team, the article said, found that the journals still had a significant impact on citations, but they were now more like curators than the main distributors of research.
But there are problems as well. arXiv acknowledges support from the Simons Foundation based in New York City and a large number of academic and research institutions around the world but is still short of resources. A small paid staff helps volunteer moderators handle up to 1,200 submissions every day, according to the Scientific American article. “We are understaffed and underfunded — and have been for years,” the article quoted Steinn Sigurdsson, the scientific director of arXiv, as saying.
The article also flagged concern over some of the moderation policies at arXiv, quoting, among others, physicist Deepak Vaid of the National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal: “They are taking actions which seem to go against what the role of a preprint server should be.” Dr Vaid, the article said, pointed to “inconsistent moderation and a lack of transparency”.
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