The title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek because preprints are a relatively recent adoption in ecology, conservation, and environmental science, and natural history is, of course, the foundation of ecology, conservation, and environmental science. Regardless, though, I think preprints have a huge role to play in natural history.
Preprints are non-peer-reviewed documents that are posted in online repositories where others can comment on them, authors can upload revised versions, and most importantly, get information out. Preprints are often submitted to journals, and their ultimate version usually contains the same text as the journal article. Importantly, the preprint is archived, is citable (with a DOI), and gets the information into the world and out of our filing drawers (or more likely, computer folders and field books). The case for preprints in biology is fairly strong, and I’ll add one more: natural history and conservation.
Natural history, I’ve argued (as have many, many, many, many, many others) is an important part of modern science. Sadly, not everyone agrees (but this is my blog, and they’re wrong). But there are still journals that value (and are dedicated to!) natural history, and rightly so. But even putting together a “natural history paper” isn’t trivial. There are still hypotheses, observations, analyses, and interpretation.
Now, maybe it’s a particular proclivity of ornithologists, but we tend to write a heck of a lot of reports – to government agencies, for permits, and to funders. These often have some preliminary analyses, lots of methodological detail and background, and in the case of most of my field studies, heaps of “ancillary information”.
During my PhD, my primary field site was Kiska Island, a lovely volcanic island in the Rat Islands group of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. It’s a fantastic spot, and cumulatively over the four years, I spent nearly 300 days there (probably the 2nd largest amount of time of anyone alive right now). Each year, we filed a summary report with the US Fish and Wildlife Service that detailed the effects of introduced rats on Least and Crested Auklets. But we also did much more than that. In particular, we (and the other 3-6 ornithological research camps in the Aleutians each summer) compiled an annotate list of bird sightings.
“Hey!” I hear you exclaiming, “That’s some pretty awesome natural history data form a neat part of the world! When will you write it up?”. Sadly, the answer is not anytime soon. This makes me sad, but my current job doesn’t allow for Natural History Fridays. What if you were interested in the distribution and effect of introduced predators on Aleutian Cackling Geese? Or were examining range-wide variation in Glaucous-winged Gull egg size? You would have no way of knowing that I collected useful data because it’s in an unpublished government report (or other “grey literature”), and doesn’t merit a paper or note on its own.
If I had deposited my annual reports in a preprint repository like PeerJ PrePrints, or bioRxiv, not only would these data be out there, but others could cite my report/preprint. Furthermore, the publicly available copy wouldn’t just be the one on my old lab’s webpage, but it would be available after I’m long gone, and since it would have a DOI, it would be easy to find.
Tracking down grey literature is a royal pain. Reports are rare, are often poor black-and-white reproductions, and usually hard to find in the first place. Citations of grey literature also tend to be more prone to errors, which exacerbates the whole process of finding them. And, I think most importantly, the information they contain doesn’t always make it into a paper. All solved if they were deposited on a preprint server.
We are, after all, already producing these reports, and more importantly, they’re already cited frequently, and data appearing in these reports is also in published papers. So the reality is that nothing would really change, except that the information would be more widely available, better curated, and citable. I don’t see a downside.
So if you are, in fact, interested in the distribution and effect of introduced predators on Aleutian Cackling Geese, or variation in Glaucous-winged Gull egg size, you will hopefully soon be able to add my wee bits of data to your analysis. When my various colleagued return from the field, I’ll convince them that we need to deposit our annual reports in a preprint archive. In the meantime, you can see them on the “Downloadable reports” section of the Kiska webpage.