Science is not quick. In fact, it is slow most of the time. Therefore, most researchers work on multiple papers at the same time. This is not necessarily bad, as parallel activities can be leveraged to increase the quality of the different projects. But sometimes this approach leads to significant delays. Imagine a paper that is basically done, and then during the peer review process, all the lead figures in the author team get different positions. Perhaps a Ph.D. student moves institutes for a post-doc, or junior doctors finish their training and set up their own practices, or start their demanding clinical duties in an academic medical center. All these steps are understandable and good for science in general but can hurt the speediness of individual papers.
This happened for example with a recently published paper in the Dutch PSI study. I say recently published because the work started > 5 years ago and has been finished more or less for the majority of that time. In this paper, we show that cancer prevalence is higher for stroke patients. But not all cancers are affected: it is primarily bladder cancer and head and neck type of effect. This might be explained by the shared risk factor smoking (bladder cancer, repository tract) and perhaps cancer treatment (central nervous system/ head and neck cancer). Not world shocking results with direct clinical implications, but relevant if you want to have a clear understanding of the consequences of cancer.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am very glad we, in the end, got all their ducks in a row and find a good place for the paper to be published. But the story is also a good warning: It was the willpower of some in the team to make this happen. Next time such a situation comes around, we might not have the right people with will right amount of power to keep on going with a paper like this.
How to avoid this? Is “pre-print” the solution? I am not sure. On the surface, it indeed seems the answer, as it will give others at least the chance to see the work we did. But I am a firm believer that some form of peer review is necessary – just ‘dumping’ papers on a pre-print server is really a non-solution and I am afraid that a culture like that will only diminish the drive to get things formally published is even lower when manuscripts are already in the public domain. Post-publication peer review then? I am also skeptical here, as I the idea of pre-publication peer review is so deeply embedded within the current scientific enterprise that I do not see post-publication peer review playing a big role anytime soon. The lack of incentive for peer review – let alone post-publication peer review – is really not helping us to make the needed changes anytime sooner.
Luckily, there is a thing called intrinsic motivation, and I am glad that JW and LS had enough to get this paper published. The paper, with the title “Cancer prevalence higher in stroke patients than in the general population: the Dutch String-of-Pearls Institute (PSI) Stroke study. is published in European Journal of Neurology and can be found on Pubmed, as well as on my Mendeley and Publons profile.