bioRxiv wouldn't host our paper on natural selection, why not?

I wrote slightly satirically about the risks of doing controversial research.  My working paper with Abdel Abdellaoui probably fits this category. It gives evidence for natural selection in modern societies, and it shows that it is concentrated among low-income people, people with less education and single mothers. Not surprisingly, soon after posting, it got retweets starting “Dear Lefties…”. That’s Twitter. 🤷‍♂️.

People and institutions have reasons to be wary of controversial research. They may just disapprove of it. One academic asked why “someone as smart as me” would do research that “harms the weakest” instead of supporting them — as if research helped the weakest by saying nice things about them, rather than by finding out how society actually works. There’s also a practical issue. Modern genomics relies on huge surveys of volunteer subjects. If the resulting research upsets them, then subjects might withdraw their consent. When they saw our working paper, UK Biobank asked that we foreground the health implications of our research, which we happily did. It wasn’t hard: many of our polygenic scores predict illness or health-related behaviour, and we argue that natural selection may exacerbate health inequalities.

Today, many disciplines have a preprint server — a standard place to publish working papers before they are submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. For biology, there’s bioRxiv. Preprint servers don’t assess quality. BioRxiv simply runs “a basic screening process for offensive and/or non-scientific content…” and checks whether the paper is relevant to its fields.

So, we submitted there. To our surprise, bioRxiv rejected our paper as being “not within scope”. This was odd, because bioRxiv hosts many papers on topics very like ours — work on reproductive success in UK Biobank, purifying selection in UK Biobank, explanations for natural selection for educational attainment, and other work on the relationship between reproductive success and polygenic scores. We wrote back pointing this out, and they agreed to take another look, but then rejected us again. I asked why, and after some nudging, I got a substantive response. bioRxiv processes a lot of papers, and its staff must be busy: I thank them for taking the time to explain their decision.

bioRxiv made two points. First, they wrote that our paper “offered a biological interpretation — natural selection — for variables in human populations such as earnings and educational attainment that are defined in sociological or economic terms.” In short, this wasn’t biology.

This argument isn’t wholly clear. The best interpretation I can make is something like this: our paper looks at the correlations of polygenic scores with fertility in different population subgroups. Then we talk about natural selection. But natural selection doesn’t apply within individual subgroups, only at the level of the whole species! So we are interpreting a sociological phenomenon as a biological one.

That would not be a strong argument. Obviously, we don’t think of e.g. single parents as separate species. We investigate these different subgroups in order to understand how natural selection is occurring at the level of the whole population. It may also not be the exact argument bioRxiv’s reviewers made — I read it second-hand, and am trying to make sense of it. Anyway, arguments like this would be a standard part of peer review, and would be resolved in the usual way, maybe with some clarifications.

But bioRxiv doesn’t do peer review. Their second point was even stranger: “bioRxiv is a platform limited to biological research, so acceptance of your manuscript for bioRxiv would imply acceptance of your interpretation of your findings as biologically determined.”

Really? bioRxiv’s own website says “No endorsement of an article’s methods, assumptions, conclusions, or scientific quality by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is implied by its appearance in bioRxiv.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying “hey, bioRxiv put this paper online, so they must agree with its interpretation and findings, even though their website explicitly states the opposite.” Of course bioRxiv has to do scope checks, but it does that in order to weed out papers irrelevant to its audience, not so as to endorse a particular view of biology.

I have to emphasize how weird this is. Our paper is about natural selection on polygenic scores, both of which are central topics to human genetics right now. Maybe it’s a lousy paper! Maybe it’s wrong in all its conclusions! But claiming it’s unsuitable for bioRxiv really doesn’t make sense, especially since bioRxiv hosts a load of other papers about natural selection on polygenic scores, many using very similar methods to our own. (And believe me, if I could make this a social science paper, I would. That would be a way better career move for me, a social scientist! But for this paper, human geneticists are an obvious, primary audience, and they read bioRxiv papers.)

Because this decision seems so odd, I cannot help wondering whether our rejection was based on bioRxiv or its reviewers seeing our results as controversial, or politically unwelcome. I don’t like thinking so. I don’t like to make negative assumptions about scientific colleagues, and I hope to be proven wrong. But I am stuck for other explanations, and their concern with being seen as “accepting our interpretation” seems to support that view.

Preprint servers are important for researchers. As PNAS put it, they allow authors to get feedback; they address the file-drawer problem, in which “uninteresting” results go unnoticed; and they chronicle the progress of science. For many disciplines, preprint servers are a key part of the scientific action, where researchers can get the latest work while it’s hot. The academic publishing system is evolving, and in future, preprint servers may play an even more central role. This makes it crucial that their benefits are fairly available to everyone, based on publicly stated scientific criteria.

For us, not being on bioRxiv isn’t a big deal. Abdel is a respected human geneticist, with a bunch of Twitter followers in the field (probably not the same guys who tweet “dear Lefties…”). And I’m an economist, which gives me access to REPEC, a distributed preprint server for economics, where our working paper now sits. (Go read it! Point out its flaws!) But what if we were two PhD students? A key route to publicizing our paper would have been shut down, and we’d have far fewer alternatives. Any bias in preprint publication is most harmful to less established researchers, who have more to lose, and who are often the source of new scientific ideas.

Academia has become a field in the culture wars. Politicians are getting involved: in the UK, the Conservative government has threatened to fine universities who don’t protect freedom of speech. Political meddling goes against the principle that academic institutions are self-governing. But if academics are themselves seen as politicizing research, they leave an open goal for interference from above. To an outsider, natural science can seem like a haven of pure research. But the natural sciences will be part of political debate whenever their results have political implications. This makes it extra important to maintain their integrity.

Basic screening is important: it’s what differentiates preprint servers from an unsorted ocean of content. And maybe bioRxiv screens out tons of politically motivated pseudoscience – crank papers “proving” that Jews are subhuman, with a bunch of made-up numbers in a table. Certainly, bioRxiv does a difficult and valuable job for a large scientific community. I happen to think that this time, they made a mistake. They obviously disagree, and they’ve tried to explain why. But their response has not allayed my concerns. I am not persuaded by their argument that our paper is out of scope. And I am still worried that our research was actually rejected because of its unwelcome message.

It’s not easy to say what should change here. I see nothing wrong with what bioRxiv says they do: basic screening, with no peer review, to publish papers in biology. Only, this time they got it wrong. I would like to know why, and I believe they ought to ask themselves that question, too.

Lastly, I have a confession. I may have occasionally made fun of the humanities, their love of continental philosophers, and their belief that politics pervades everything. Well, now I wonder. Perhaps Foucault was right: even the most basic scientific concepts, like the definition of biology, are subject to political contestation! It’s turtles, all the way down….

Let’s hope not.


One important point: I showed an early draft of this post to Abdel Abdellaoui. But he is not a co-author of it. So, if you dislike these arguments, blame me, not him.


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