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Understanding Preprints in Scientific Publication

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Scientific publication has followed a specific infrastructure for many years.

A researcher (or research group) completes their study, conducts a write-up including the rationale behind the study, the results and the analysis of their findings before submitting the manuscript to a specific academic journal(s).

Before a study is accepted by a journal to join the shelves of academic literature, it must be peer-reviewed. Here, the validity, originality and significance of the research comes under close inspection by other experts within the same field.

Typically, researchers will not share their study until it has been accepted and published by a journal. However, an increasing number of online platforms are enabling scientists to share their research before it has undergone peer-review. In this form, the manuscript is regarded as a preprint.

Preprint definition

A full draft of a manuscript that is shared publicly before it has been peer-reviewed.

Benefits and challenges of preprints

Accelerating Science and Publication in biology (ASAPbio) is a scientist-driven nonprofit organization that works to address key topics in the scientific publication process, including

ASAPbio outline the
following benefits to scientists using preprints:

  • Evidence of productivity and accomplishment – particularly useful for early career scientists. 

  • Visibility of work promotes invitation to meetings.

  • Feedback on your work – you can send the preprint to other scientists and ask for feedback and comments.

  • Establishing priority of discoveries and ideas.

  • Potential for developing new collaborations earlier.

  • Open access of your work across the globe.

  • Opportunity to see—in real time—reactions from the community and how the researcher responds to these.

The organization
acknowledge that there are some arguments and possibly unintended consequences of preprints, including:

  • Poor quality and irreproducible data could be posted in preprint form.

  • Scientists may rush the release of data prematurely to claim priority and get credit.

  • Scientists may try to exploit the information to their advantage if findings are posted as a preprint.

ASAPbio provides a frequently asked questions platform surrounding preprints, accessible

Journal policies on preprints

Information and details regarding a journals' editorial policy on posting, licensing and the citation of preprints is typically listed on the journal's website.

Research journals, for example, encourage the posting of preprints of primary research manuscripts on preprint servers, authors’ or institutional websites. The journal says: "Authors should disclose details of preprint posting, including DOI and licensing terms, upon submission of the manuscript or at any other point during consideration at a Nature Research journal."

Similarly, Science journals support the posting of research papers on not-for-profit preprint servers, such as
arXiv.org and bioRxiv.org, stating: "While a manuscript is under consideration at a Science Journal no versions revised in response to editorial input and peer review should be posted on a preprint server. Manuscripts posted at a preprint server should not be discussed with the media prior to publication."

A new communication system for scientific research

Preprints remain a relatively new concept in scientific publication, and the discussions surrounding their value and potential issues pertaining to their use are ongoing and pertinent. Key questions
to address going forward include:

  • Will funding agencies encourage the use of preprint servers?

  • Will all journals accept manuscripts for publication once they have been disseminated as preprints?

  • Will the life sciences community continue to find ways to make preprints easily discoverable?

Providing answers to these questions will require constructive, objective and thoughtful discussions, in addition to collaboration.

Will a convergence between preprints and journal publications form the future of science communications? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.