preLights talks to Richard Sever
30 March 2023
Richard Sever is Assistant Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (CSHL Press) and co-founder of bioRxiv and medRxiv. Prior to moving to CSHL Press in 2008, he worked as an editor for several journals including Current Opinion in Cell Biology, Trends in Biochemical Sciences, and Journal of Cell Science. Here, we discuss Richard’s transition into the academic publishing industry, the journey that led him to co-found the preprint servers bioRxiv and medRxiv with John Inglis, and his take on preprint peer review and the value it can hold for early-career researchers.
What sparked your initial interest in science?
At first, I was most interested in chemistry and maths. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to understand how things work, and I liked things you could derive from general principles and rules – so naturally, I really enjoyed organic chemistry: once you knew a few rules, you could work out all the reactions. You didn’t have to learn anything, which suited me as fundamentally I was quite a lazy person!
“I’ve always liked things you can derive from general principles and rules.”
Then I think there was a kind of awakening during the last two years of high school. It was when we covered the structure of DNA – specifically the bases and base pairing. Suddenly seeing how there was a whole other level – where you have all these complex organic chemicals making nucleotides and polymerising – made me realise that maybe biology is interesting. I immediately knew what I wanted to study when I went to college: biochemistry.
Could you tell us a bit about your academic career?
I was lucky to have Sue Kingsman, who worked on HIV, as my undergraduate tutor at Oxford. She was not particularly interested in spending time on the basics and left you to figure all that out for yourself. She wanted to get straight to the interesting stuff. So suddenly we were talking about promoter complexes and how transcriptional regulation might occur in HIV, etc. I was fortunate enough to do well as an undergraduate, so the opportunity to do a PhD presented itself. Sue suggested I consider only the IMM in Oxford, ICRF in London or the LMB in Cambridge. Having already lived in both Oxford and London, I chose to go to the LMB in Cambridge, which was clearly a very prestigious institution.
“…I certainly wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be a practicing scientist my entire career. I think the PhD kind of reinforced that.”
I think a lot of people choose to do a PhD because they make a decision to become a scientist, whereas for me it felt more like I had the opportunity and I couldn’t think of anything else. I thought, “Well, I’ll do this, but I’m keeping my options open”, and I certainly wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be a practicing scientist my entire career. I think the PhD kind of reinforced that.
In your recent Nature Worldview article, you mention that you left the bench with little on your CV other than grades and degrees – how did you experience the transition to an “alternative” career?
At some point during my PhD, I started thinking about science journalism and publishing and my supervisor encouraged me to explore these areas. Basically, I had to figure out whether I wanted to be a journalist or an editor. So when I finished my PhD, I wrote to tons of journalists. One introduced me to Pallab Ghosh, then working for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, and he offered me the chance to help research some interviews. Through this, I got to see what being a science journalist was like and that actually helped me come to the realisation that it wasn’t for me. I felt that the type of communication was too general and I was looking for something with a more specific target audience – something that would allow me to use my knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology.
“…I was looking for something with a more specific target audience – something that would allow me to use my knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology.”
This led me to science publishing and, as before, I contacted a few people to seek their advice. Editorial jobs rarely came up at the time but luckily for me, not much later two jobs were advertised that fit: editorial positions at Trends in Biochemical Sciences (‘TiBS’) and Current Opinion in Cell Biology. I was told that these applications would be really competitive, so I applied to both. One thing that I think helped get me shortlisted is that I’d managed to get a summer temp job at Cambridge University Press, which was useful to point to when writing my application letters. I was sent editing tests and when I got invited to interviews for both jobs on the basis of these, I was like, “Phew, that’s over.” But then of course, they give you another editing test at the interview! Current Opinion immediately offered me a job and wanted me to start right away, but there were multiple rounds for the TiBS job, which was really competitive and I had no assurance of getting it. So I actually ended up working at Current Opinion for a few months before being offered the TiBs position, which was really my dream job.
Could you tell us how you ended up in your current role (Assistant Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press)?
I loved working at TiBS, and the people were absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have wished for better mentoring. We were all based in Cambridge and things felt very collegial. It was the sort of place where everyone worked really hard but you knew that at the end of the week we’d all (including the boss) go to the pub together. Then Elsevier, who owned TiBS, decided that they were going to move all their operations to London in order to make it part of a much bigger thing.
This prompted many of us to keep an eye out for other jobs. I remember a friend of mine, another Trends editor, left an advert on my desk – “Journal of Cell Science (JCS) is seeking a staff editor” – and told me I should go for it. At the time, JCS was a very traditional cell biology journal that pretty much just published research papers. I spoke to the JCS Editor-in-Chief at the time, Fiona Watt, then a group leader at ICRF in London, who was clearly a very driven person. She really wanted to make things happen and needed to have somebody on site who was going to make change. This really appealed to me and so I applied and got the position.
“…the JCS Editor-in-Chief at the time, Fiona Watt…wanted to make things happen and needed to have somebody on site who was going to make change. This really appealed to me…”
As promised, I was given free rein to introduce changes such as new review articles and augment the front section of the journal. It was an exciting time for me because it was 50% building the front section and 50% learning how a primary research journal works – I got to understand how publishing (rather than just editing) works. Fiona and I got on very well. It was a good time to work in publishing because a lot was changing. Among other things, we introduced completely new systems for manuscript submission, and we changed the way online publishing was working. It was only after eight years at JCS that I began to feel I had plateaued a little bit, which is when John Inglis recruited me to Cold Spring Harbor.
How did things lead to you co-founding the biology preprint server bioRxiv? What was your motivation for setting this up?
So when John Inglis reached out to me with a job at Cold Spring Harbor, he made it clear that he wanted us to do new things, just not exactly what those new things would be. Of course, Cold Spring Harbor was a very attractive place, with its impressive history and position within an academic institution. I decided to take up the offer and started with a few projects, launched a couple of review journals, and worked on a bunch of different books. One of the things that I noticed then was that more and more people were talking about social media for scientists. Proposals for a kind of ‘Facebook for science’ were something I had joked about many times with colleagues.
“…I noticed…that more and more people were talking about social media for scientists. Proposals for a kind of ‘Facebook for science’ were something I had joked about many times with colleagues.”
While a lot of people were mocking this idea, many scientists did get involved with Twitter. I also found Twitter a very useful place to see what people were saying and to expand the group of people I interacted with. One of the things that Twitter did was expose you to a lot more voices and broader subjects. At the time, there were lots of discussions about personalised genomics and I dipped my toes into that conversation. There were a few people in that field beginning to talk about preprints. So I remember saying to John: maybe we should think about doing a preprint server for biology.
John had heard this proposal many times; in fact, people had tried and failed. So, the question he asked was: why now? But the more we discussed it, the more we thought the time was right and discussions with people in the genetics community confirmed this. The key thing was that we got a solid group of early-career and senior researchers together who could help us get the ball rolling. We also reached out to arXiv, the physics preprint server, to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes. The founder of arXiv, Paul Ginsberg, even joined our Advisory Board.
“Everyone agreed: having a biology preprint server would be timely and it could work if it was done right.”
Everyone agreed: having a biology preprint server would be timely and it could work if it was done right. It had to be set up in a way that would appeal to biologists: it needed to have a bunch of things from the journal world, things that most biologists would be familiar with. Basically, our aim was to speed up science by uncoupling its dissemination from evaluation. We had to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make this aspect clear to journals, who were still getting to grips with the idea of a biology preprint server.
I vividly remember when it went live, one Friday evening. I was just sitting behind my laptop at home, I tweeted about bioRxiv for the first time, and it immediately launched a big discussion.
bioRxiv was followed by medRxiv six years later – how did one lead to the other?
Conversations about medRxiv started around 2015/2016 and we started planning it seriously in 2017 with BMJ and Yale. We launched medRxiv in 2019. Just like for bioRxiv, papers started to slowly trickle in after the launch. But then COVID struck and things exploded! Suddenly, we received a wave of submissions from China, followed by a wave of preprints from Italy. We realised that there was a real need for medRxiv. While most people couldn’t do much during lockdown, we were working 16 hours a day – it was all hands on deck.
“…COVID struck and things exploded!…We realised that there was a real need for medRxiv.”
The pandemic was a real test of the idea that preprint servers could speed up science. Before, it had been a claim that was mostly hypothetical. Now it proved to be essential – I’ve spoken to many COVID researchers, including people working on COVID drugs, who’ve said they couldn’t imagine what the pandemic would have been like without bioRxiv and medRxiv. Of course, not everyone was happy about it and the discussion became quite polarized at times. But for me, the pandemic has definitely confirmed what I thought.
When looking at the future, it’s clear that preprint peer review is gaining traction. This places preprint servers in an important position as facilitators of this process. What role should preprint servers play in enabling preprint peer review?
First of all, I think that just by virtue of being there, you’re an enabler. The main thing is that having a preprint server lowers the barrier to entry for anybody who wants to do peer review. Because somebody has already taken care of the distribution – the preprints always being available – it means that you can set up initiatives like preLights or other preprint commenting/peer review initiatives. As a consequence, you then increase equity since more people can get involved. Now our role in preprint peer review, and what we try with the bioRxiv/medRxiv dashboard, is to point people to the relevant things, e.g. the fact that a preprint has been peer-reviewed by EMBO or covered by preLights.
In your recent Nature Worldview article, you describe the benefits you see for early-career researchers (ECRs) getting involved in preprint peer review. How do you think ECRs can persuade their PIs or advisors that getting involved in preprint peer review is not just an unnecessary distraction?
I think there are already a lot of individual PIs who see preprint peer review as a good thing and organise preprint clubs with their students. They see it as valuable training for students who are going to become scientists, but also for students who are not going to become scientists. But this is not necessarily true for all PIs. So my view is that the institutions ought to do more to make it part of their training programs. They should really take the lead when it comes to encouraging (preprint) peer review training. What is often forgotten is that when you are a trainee, you’re supposed to be trained. All trainees have certain rights and I feel it’s the role of institutions to be clear about things that they should and shouldn’t do. Engaging in preprint peer review is one of the things that could benefit students and therefore it should be offered.
“institutions…should really take the lead when it comes to encouraging (preprint) peer review training.”
If you were a graduate student today, what would be something that you would prioritise as part of your training?
One thing I would say is that I would have gone to more talks. During my PhD, I felt like I had to be on top of everything within my narrow field of research. So, if there was a talk on something that wasn’t directly related to what I was studying, I sometimes decided I didn’t have the time to attend it. Rather, I would do another experiment or read a specific, relevant paper. As part of a PhD, you are too often asked to focus, focus, focus. I think that’s not necessarily a great thing. Fortunately, getting ideas from completely different fields, learning about other things is, is something that I was able to do in my career increasingly.
“As part of a PhD, you are too often asked to focus, focus, focus. I think that’s not necessarily a great thing.”
I would also have gone to more talks to meet the speakers. Let’s be honest, scientists love talking about their work and going to talks or finding other ways to get in touch with senior researchers (initiatives like preLights are good for this!) allow you to make the most of your training.