## TL;DR Prior to 1991 there were no platforms like arXiv or bio...
This is the number of monthly submissions on bioRxiv since 2013 ...
Pergamon Press started in 1948 with the intention to bring the "Spr...
Here's [the report](http://garfield.library.upenn.edu/papers/weinbe...
The paper on Nature was titled [Preprints Galore](https://www.readc...
This is arXiv's monthly submissions over time since 1991. ![](h...
This is a particularly bad in fields like Math, where authors might...
Currently academic career progression depends greatly on the impact...
ESSAY
The prehistory of biology preprints:
A forgotten experiment from the 1960s
Matthew Cobb*
School of Biological Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
* cobb@manchester.ac.uk
Abstract
In 1961, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to circulate biological preprints in a for-
gotten experiment called the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). This system eventually
attracted over 3,600 participants and saw the production of over 2,500 different documents,
but by 1967, it was effectively shut down following the refusal of journals to accept articles
that had been circulated as preprints. This article charts the rise and fall of the IEGs and
explores the parallels with the 1990s and the biomedical preprint movement of today.
Introduction
Since 1991, physicists and mathematicians have been using the arXiv preprint repository to
circulate articles and ideas, to the envy of many biologists. After a number of failed attempts,
including ClinMed Netprints (1999–2005) and Nature Precedings (2007–2012), 2 biology pre-
print servers were launched in 2013—PeerJ Preprints and bioRxiv (Cold Spring Harbor Labo-
ratory). Many journals will now consider an article that has appeared on a preprint server, and
grant-awarding bodies on both sides of the Atlantic allow preprints to be cited in grant and fel-
lowship applications—some, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, insist that their investiga-
tors deposit their papers as preprints. [1]
This is widely seen as an example of biology finally catching up with physics [2, 3]—it
seems certain that the success of arXiv was influential in finally convincing journals to accept
biology preprints. In fact, biology first adopted large-scale circulation of preprints over half a
century ago, as part of a generalized interest in preprints that spanned much of science. From
1961–1967, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States pioneered a system
known as the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). The IEGs, forgotten except by a handful
of historians of documentation [4,5,6,7], have been the subject of only 1 investigation, pub-
lished as an unrefereed report in 1971 [8]. The IEGs have not been systematically studied by
science historians—not only is there no IEG archive, there is not even a record of the docu-
ments they produced. The IEGs eventually fell victim to a campaign by journals and learned
societies, who considered the organized circulation of preprints in both biology and physics to
be a threat to their financial interests and to their perceived status as guardians of scientific
integrity [9].
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OPEN ACCESS
Citation: Cobb M (2017) The prehistory of biology
preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s.
PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003995. https://doi.org/
10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995
Published: November 16, 2017
Copyright: © 2017 Matthew Cobb. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Funding: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory http://
library.cshl.edu/personal-collections/sydney-
brenner/sydney-brenner-scholarship. Sydney
Brenner Research Scholarship. The funder had no
role in study design, data collection and analysis,
decision to publish, or preparation of the
manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
Abbreviations: AAI, American Association of
Immunologists; CERN, European Organization for
Nuclear Research; FASEB, Federation of American
Societies of Experimental Biology; IEGs,
Information Exchange Groups; NIH, National
Institutes of Health; NSF, National Science
Foundation; PIE, Physics Information Exchange;
SLAC, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
This article outlines the rise and fall of the IEGs and tells the cautionary tale of the ability of
scientific publishers and entrenched interests within the academic community to restrict the
sharing of knowledge.
Launching the IEGs
In 1961, Francis Crick received a letter from Errett C. Albritton, a 70-year-old administrator at
the NIH (Figs 1A and 2), inviting him to join an informal network for circulating preprints
called an IEG [10]. Crick gave Albritton the brush-off, saying he was ‘strongly opposed’ to the
scheme [11], even though he had spent much of the previous 6 years circulating his own infor-
mal papers in such a network called the RNA Tie Club [12]. ‘There is far too much careless
and rapid communication already in every area of this field of study’, Crick replied. ‘The idea
of increasing it even in this semi-public manner fills me with horror’. Albritton’s response was
good humoured (‘If it would not be a service to the area it needs a speedy burial!’ [13]), but
Crick’s hostility was not widely shared, and there were enough positive responses for the first
IEG to be set up shortly afterwards.
The IEG concept had been dreamt up in January 1961 by Albritton, along with 2 biochem-
ists—David Green (Fig 1B) of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Philip Handler of
Duke University [15]. Albritton later described the IEGs as an ‘experiment’ or a ‘natural his-
tory study’ that would enable researchers working on a tightly focused research area to send
‘any communication whatever’ (preprint, comment, discussion, etc.) to the NIH, where the
‘memo’ would be physically reproduced and then circulated by the postal service to all mem-
bers of the network. All costs were met by the NIH. Although the initial proposal was focused
on a slightly cliquey group of ‘leading investigators’ [16], IEG membership was soon broad-
ened to anyone ‘above the level of graduate student’, although the IEG chair had the final say
on who could join and become a ‘subscriber’ [17]. Although memos were not supposed to be
cited without permission, they could be taken as evidence of priority. The IEGs were intended
to increase informal communication between scientists and to avoid the delays imposed by
traditional publication methods. Albritton’s conception of the IEG was summarized by a brief
slogan that was included on the front cover of each memo: it was a ‘continuing international
congress by mail’ [15].
At one level, there was nothing new about circulating unrefereed documents or preprints.
Previous systems were generally linked to specific institutions, such as the MIT Research Labo-
ratory in Electronics that began producing unrefereed technical reports in 1946 [6] or the pre-
prints circulated by the Petroleum Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society from
1921 [18]. Other sets of unrefereed documents were tightly focused on the needs of a particular
research community, such as the Drosophila Information Service[19], or were collected and
sometimes distributed by institutional libraries, particularly in physics. Albritton’s NIH pro-
posal was far more ambitious. It involved systematically circulating copies of all submitted pre-
prints to a group of subscribers, rather than issuing them on request from an institution [20].
The scale of this experiment was immense, given the technology of the time: by the end of
1965, 3,663 researchers, from 46 different countries, were involved, and 2,561 different memos
had been physically mailed out, involving millions of pages of paper [8].
The first IEG was focused on oxidative phosphorylation and terminal electron transport. It
initially had only 32 members but grew to 386 within 4 years [8]. The IEG1 chair, David
Green, underlined the advantages of the system: ‘The exchange makes it possible for all of its
members to be fully informed in record time of all important developments in the field’ [21].
Other advantages included avoiding the danger of being ‘ambushed by some overzealous or
overopinionated reviewer’, thereby providing ‘an outlet for anyone who feels choked by
PLOS Biology | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995 November 16, 2017 2 / 12
Provenance: Not commissioned; externally peer
reviewed.
editorial intransigence’ [22]. Green insisted that, despite the lack of review, the IEG memos
did not consist of a ‘flood of rubbish’; indeed, it was possible that informal review via the IEG
might lead to a reduction in the number of weaker articles submitted to journals.
In October 1963, Albritton began soliciting suggestions for more IEGs and approached
Sydney Brenner, Jacques Monod, and many others [23]. Like Crick 2 years earlier, Brenner
gave a negative response: ‘the informal contacts that already exist facilitate enough exchange of
information’, he wrote [24]. However, 5 new IEGs were soon created, covering Hemostasis
(IEG2), Computer Simulation of Biological Systems (IEG3), Molecular Basis of Muscle Con-
traction (IEG4), Immunopathology (IEG5), and Interferon (IEG6). IEG7, focused on Nucleic
Acids and the Genetic Code, was launched in early 1966 by Jim Watson and Marshall Niren-
berg. Over 1,100 scientists immediately signed up [8]. Crick’s hostility to the IEG project
diminished, and by October 1965, he was proposing Brenner and others as members of the
future IEG7, although he warned Albritton that having multiple copies of IEG documents
‘pouring into our laboratory is more than we can stomach’ [25]. Among the most significant
memos submitted to IEG7 was Francis Crick’s ‘wobble hypothesis’ explanation of codon–anti-
codon binding [26,27].
Overall, about 80% of the IEG memos were articles. Around one-third of these were circu-
lated after acceptance by a journal but before publication; the remainder were submitted to the
IEG before peer review and would be what we would now classify as preprints. There were also
technical notes and—occasionally—debates. Over one-third of IEG members were from out-
side the US (mainly from the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia), and over 90% of the
Fig 1. (A) Errett C. Albritton, MD (1890–1984), in 1948. Biographical information about Albritton is scant. For
much of his career he was Professor of Physiology at the George Washington University Medical School,
where he specialized in nutrition science. He later joined the NIH, where he worked in the Office of Research
Accomplishments. In 1961, aged 70, he became the cofounder of preprints in the biosciences. Credit:
Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library, George Washington University. (B) David E. Green, PhD (1910–1983),
in 1961. Green was a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, focusing on oxidative
phosphorylation. This was the topic of the first IEG, which he cocreated and described as ‘one of the most
revolutionary innovations in the history of science communication’ [9]. A biographical memoir described
Green as ‘one of the giants of 20th century biochemistry. . .a complex person who had an extraordinary
personality’. It makes no mention of his support for preprints [14]. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin–
Madison Archives (ID S14597). IEG, Information Exchange Group; NIH, National Institutes of Health.
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995.g001
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