Two researchers studying the distribution of seagrass during low tide in Victoria, Australia.

Australian ecologists study the distribution of seagrass at low tide in Coronet Bay, Victoria.Credit: Izzet Noyan Yilmaz/Alamy

Australia’s major research funder has ruled more than 20 fellowship applications ineligible because they mentioned preprints and other non-peer-reviewed materials, sparking an outcry from scientists who say the move is a blow to open science and will stymie careers.

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the use of preprints to the fore, researchers say the stance by the Australian Research Council (ARC) — which limits applicants’ ability to refer to the latest research — is out of step with modern publishing practices and at odds with overseas funding agencies that allow or encourage the use of preprints.

In the past week, researchers have taken to Twitter in outrage, calling the blanket ruling “short sighted”, “plain ludicrous”, “cruel”, “astonishing”, “outdated” and “gut-wrenching”.

Nick Enfield, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Sydney, who is currently funded by the ARC, argues that the decision is unconscionable and unethical. “The leading research-funding body of the country is potentially throwing away valuable research on a ridiculous technicality,” he says.

Career-ending move

The ARC did not answer specific questions from Nature about its rationale for excluding preprints, or confirm how many applicants had been deemed ineligible as a result, but a spokesperson said that the rule “ensures that all applications are treated the same”, adding that “eligibility issues may arise in a number of ways”.

In a tweet posted on Monday, the funder responded to the influx of complaints, saying: “Thank you to everyone who has contacted the ARC to provide your disciplinary perspective about including pre-prints in applications for funding” and “we are looking into the issues raised and will respond as soon as we can”.

At least 23 researchers — 7 of whom Nature contacted for comment — have been deemed ineligible because they referred to preprints in applications for two prestigious ARC funding schemes, which can make or break careers. Some will never be allowed to apply again and say their careers have effectively been ended, because application attempts are limited to two for Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards and three for Future Fellowships.

A preprint, as defined by the ARC, is a manuscript, submitted to a journal or other publication, that has not yet been through peer review. Previously, the ARC banned researchers from including preprints in lists of their own publications; some researchers contacted by Nature say they understand the rationale for the original rule.

Now, under a rule introduced in September 2020, ahead of this year’s funding round, applicants are instructed not to “include or refer” to preprints in “any part of” applications, even though they must show how their proposal is timely and relevant. The ARC says this change “was communicated to university research offices through webinars” at the time of the opening of grant rounds. However, researchers argue that the rule change was not clearly expressed or defined in instructions to applicants.

In publicly accessible reports, the ARC says that 52 applications were deemed ineligible across the two funding schemes this year, but does not list the reasons.

‘Killer of innovation’

According to the researcher behind the ARC Tracker account on Twitter, who has been in contact with 23 rejected applicants, at least 14 of them were ruled ineligible because they referenced other authors’ preprints in project descriptions or methodology. Some merely cited technical documents that are hosted on preprint servers, but were never intended for peer-reviewed journals, says the researcher, who chose to remain anonymous.

It’s a “killer of innovation”, says one physicist who had their application rejected and also spoke to Nature on the condition of anonymity.

Physicists, astronomers and mathematicians have been sharing papers ahead of peer review on the open-access arXiv preprint server for three decades. Preprints are now becoming common in many fields, such as ecology and social sciences. Their use in biomedical sciences has also exploded in the past 18 months, as researchers around the world fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matthew Bailes, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says the ARC must modernize its process to reflect the urgent nature of topical research shared in preprints. “If you didn’t refer to them, you’d be remiss in writing the best science case you could,” he says.

Bailes, who has served on ARC assessment panels, says reviewers are capable of judging the relative merits of preprints and papers. “Expert referees know when to treat something with suspicion, and when to recognize the application is right on top of the latest development in the field,” he adds.

Citing preprints in funding applications is common around the world — in Canada, Germany, Denmark and Spain, for example. The European Research Council also permits the practice.

The US National Institutes of Health actually encourages researchers to use preprints precisely because they promote rigour, rather than detract from it, says cell biologist Prachee Avasthi at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Far-reaching consequences

Researchers warn that the ARC’s rule could have disastrous consequences, for individual careers and Australian research as a whole. Martin Porr, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the situation is “deeply troubling” and “demoralizing” for young researchers who spent months developing applications.

One of the rejected applicants says the decision will end their career because they were offered a tenured position contingent on receiving a grant, but cannot resubmit their application because it was the second of two permitted attempts. “This basically leaves me with the choice to leave Australia, or leave academia,” they say.

All seven researchers denied fellowships as a result of the new rule who spoke to Nature say they will appeal against the decision.

“Even if it were clearly described and fairly enforced, it would be a terrible rule,” says an ARC fellowship awardee, who also chose to remain anonymous. They say they have the resources to build a research team but are reticent to do so in Australia, because of the “intolerable” funding system. “The talent is here in abundance, but the support is not.”