Preprint Servers Have Changed Research Culture in Many Fields. Will a New One for Education Catch On?

Aug 21, 2020

Academic research moves at a famously sluggish pace. It can often take well over a year between the time a paper is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and when that article is published. And then, only those who can get to a library that subscribes to the journal can see it.

Some fields, most notably physics, have hacked the academic publishing system by creating so-called “preprint servers,” where scholars post early versions of their journal articles to websites so that people can see and comment on them while the articles are going through formal peer review. And these preprint websites are free to all, making their findings accessible not just to scholars but to a broader audience.

So a group of professors have built a preprint server for education research, with the hope of speeding up the pace of research and reaching communities of teachers and parents.

The effort is called EdArXiv (pronounced “ed-archive”). The odd spelling follows the formula set by that pioneering physics preprint server, arXiv, and the new server uses the same underlying software.

In disciplines where sharing papers on preprint website is routine—including physics, computer science and mathematics—papers that have early versions posted end up getting cited more widely once they hit official journals, says Amanda Montoya, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, who is the vice chair of the EdArXiv steering committee.

One win for education, she stresses, is that it is a field where a large number of people could benefit from freely accessible findings—teachers, parents and policymakers. “None of those people are people who have all the resources of a university library,” she says.

The service is moving at academic speed, though. It quietly went live a full year ago, and so far has only about 500 papers posted.

Lately its leaders are ramping up efforts to get the word out to researchers, “because there’s no point in having a preprint server if nobody posts anything on it,” admits Montoya.

The service’s leaders planned to make a splashy announcement at a session at year’s American Educational Research Association conference, but the event was moved online and had far fewer sessions due to COVID-19, so they weren’t able to use that platform.

Some professors in other disciplines have worried that posting something on a preprint server could lead another scholar to steal their idea. “My philosophy is that if somebody can do it faster than me, then the science will be out there faster,” Montoya says.

A more pressing concern is whether junk science could get posted to the server, since none of the work has undergone formal peer review. That leads some to worry that improperly tested instructional methods could then be found by teachers or parents who might not know how to judge the merit of the research.

We ran that concern by the inventor of the original arXiv server, Paul Ginsparg, a physics professor at Cornell University.

“This has long been a concern, going back to the early 90’s,” he said in an email interview this week, saying that medical and biological researchers were particularly hesitant. “But now bioRxiv and medRxiv have ramped up dramatically in the past half year with COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 related articles, where we might be even more worried about potential risks,” he added. “But clearly the benefits of rapid communication (and facilitated rapid research progress) are perceived to dramatically outweigh the risks.”

And Montoya says that she or someone else from the group looks at every paper before it is posted to make sure that it is in the form of a scientific paper. They have had to reject some submissions that appeared to be class assignments rather than reports of more rigorous research. "I think it was a misunderstanding," she says.

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