Preprints in the scientific community – Why, when, and how?
A preprint is a completed author manuscript stored on a preprint server that has not undergone peer review yet. Preprints are often submitted for publication with their revised versions eventually being published in journals. While the final, published version of the article is undoubtedly of a higher quality following formal peer review, public drafts or preprints have multiple benefits. They enable the faster and broader dissemination as well as the immediate discussion of research findings. Given the growing popularity of the use of preprints in scholarly communication, in this blog post, we provide a practical overview of them by discussing their common features, history, and pros and cons.
The common features of preprints
Preprints have several characteristic features. Here follows a list of them.
- They are not subjected to peer review before being published on a preprint server. Authors need to complete only a few screening steps to have their manuscript posted as a preprint, which typically relate to the file format, file name, the appropriateness and topicality of the content, and so on.
- Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) can be assigned to preprints. This can enhance the discoverability, accessibility, interoperability, and reuse of the works in question.
- The submitted author manuscripts are made available on preprint servers almost on a daily basis.
- It is possible to receive email alerts about the content posted on preprint servers.
- Once a preprint has appeared online, it is possible to make changes to it on the condition that reasons are given for initiating change. However, earlier versions of the given preprint will still remain publicly accessible.
- There exist four types of preprint repositories: general ones (e.g., arXiv), field-specific ones (e.g., bioRxiv, ChemRxiv), geography-specific ones (e.g., AfricArxiv), and repositories merged with publisher submission workflows (e.g., Authorea, Research Square). These are either maintained by non-profit communities or profit-oriented publishers.
- Preprints are free both for authors as well as for readers.
- Preprints are typically published using the CC-BY license. This allows users to copy, distribute, adapt, and use the work for commercial and non-commercial purposes alike provided they credit the author of the preprint.
- To cite a preprint, refer to the specific style guide you are using. Make sure to provide the location of the preprint and its DOI.
It may seem surprising, but preprints are not the invention of the digital era. As Drury (2022) points out, originally, they were author manuscripts in a paper format that came into being to accelerate communication among scholars in the pre-digital age when the publication process could take years due to the stakeholders (e.g., reviewers, typesetters, proofreaders) receiving the works through the postal system. The era of paper preprints required high maintenance costs from the participating institutions largely stemming from the photocopying and postal expenses, which meant that only well-funded research domains (e.g., particle physics, astrophysics) could afford the distribution of scientific documents ahead of publication.
As Drury (2022) illuminates, it was the mathematical typesetting system, TeX that brought about the first major change in the use of preprints. It offered a “standard way of encoding a scientific paper as a text file” (p. 4), which made their distribution much easier. Then, with the advent of the Internet, the storage and distribution of preprints started to gradually shift to the digital realm.
Another major milestone in the history of preprints is the launch of the first preprint server, arXiv, in 1991 (Ginsparg, 2016). Attesting to the server’s significance is the fact that, after 25 years, its usage was still growing. It is not difficult to see why: Posting a manuscript there grants immediate and equal access to an author’s research findings for all the members of the research community.
Nowadays, preprints are increasingly being accepted by the world of scholarly publishing. That is, many publishers promote the possibility of submitting the final version of an author manuscript for publication as well as linking the DOIs of the preprint and the published version of an article. As such, the use of preprints is likely to gain further ground in the future.
Preprints: Pros and cons
Publishing your manuscript as a preprint has both its benefits and its drawbacks. In what follows, we provide an overview of the positive and negative aspects of preprints.
- Immediate access: The dissemination of research results is not delayed by the long peer review process that many journals are known for.
- Primacy: The rapid public appearance of your work means that you are more likely to be credited for the given research finding first.
- Supporting Open Science: Anyone can read, download, and cite the manuscripts stored on preprint servers without restrictions, which is a key principle of Open Science.
- Increased number of dissemination platforms: You are more likely to be invited to present your research at conferences and publish your results in peer-reviewed journals.
- Feedback opportunities: It is possible to gather comments from fellow scientists and improve your manuscript before submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal.
- Evidence of performance: Preprints provide funding agencies and HR committees with the opportunity to give you credit for your work even before it gets published in a journal.
- New collaboration opportunities: You are more likely to be contacted by fellow researchers with the intention of collaborating with you.
- Risk of losing the opportunity to publish in a peer-reviewed journal: Some journals do not accept manuscripts that have been uploaded to a preprint server before.
- Risk of ‘preprint wars’: Due to the lack of policies on the monitoring of the content appearing on preprint servers, researchers might steal others’ ideas upon reading a manuscript on a preprint server and use them in their own publications.
- Low quality: Due to the lack of peer review, public manuscripts stored on preprint servers are more likely to come with quality concerns.
- Premature preprint posting: Since there is no formal review, some researchers might be tempted to publish their preprints too early for the sake of obtaining credit for them.
The importance in the scientific community
The role of preprints in scholarly communication is becoming increasingly significant. This is attested by the fact that recently, there has been an increase in the number of preprint publications and in the public’s engagement with them. In fact, several pieces of meta-research (e.g., Fraser et al., 2020; Fu & Hughey, 2019) have proved that peer-reviewed research articles with preprint versions have higher attention and citation rates compared to published articles with no available preprint versions. The growing popularity of preprints has been most visible in economics and medical research (Fry et al., 2016). This is not surprising in light of global events, such as recessions and pandemics, in the case of which the rapid dissemination of research findings is the key to avoiding and/or combatting disasters.
AKJournals, a preprint-friendly publisher
AKJournals welcomes manuscripts that have been published as preprints before. Authors are kindly asked to adhere to our ethical guide. This means that the submission must contain original work not being considered for publication elsewhere. Plagiarism must be avoided, any means of support related to the given research acknowledged, and potential conflicts of interest declared. Before submitting your manuscript, we also highly recommend consulting the author instructions of the selected journal.
Drury, L. (2022). The normalization of preprints. International Science Council. https://doi.org/10.24948/2022.02
Fraser, N., Momeni, F., Mayr, P., & Peters, I. (2020). The relationship between bioRxiv preprints, citations and altmetrics. Quantitative Science Studies, 1(2), 618–638. https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00043
Fry, J., Spezi, V., Probets, S., & Creaser, C. (2016). Towards an understanding of the relationship between disciplinary research cultures and open access repository behaviors. JASIST, 67(11), 2710–2724. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.23621
Fu, D. I., & Hughey, J. J. (2019). Releasing a preprint is associated with more attention and citations for the peer-reviewed article. eLife, 8(e52646). https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.52646
Ginsparg, P. (2016). Preprint déjà vu. The EMBO Journal, 35, 2620–2625. https://doi.org/10.15252/embj.201695531