In today’s world, the results of scientific research need to get out to the public domain as soon as possible, partly because academia has become highly competitive and authors need to show their recent work for the purposes of funding, job applications, and career progression in general. Besides, timely dissemination of research results is required to accelerate scientific progress. This is particularly important in some fields such as biology and medicine, where it can influence healthcare related developments, decisions, and policies; and in computer science and information technology, where the pace of scientific progress is very fast. The need to share research findings immediately and the growing frustration of scientists at the slow pace of academic journals has led to the trend of distributing preprints.
What is a preprint?
A preprint is a completed draft of a scientific manuscript that is uploaded by the author on a public server; often it is the same version of the manuscript that is submitted to a journal. Once the manuscript is uploaded, it goes through a quick check to ascertain that it is scientific in nature. It is then posted online within a day or two without peer review and is made freely available for everyone to view. Revised versions of the same manuscript can be uploaded later on, but the older versions also remain.
Popular preprints servers in different fields
There are several sites that host preprints, often known as preprint servers or repositories. While some of the preprint severs host papers from various disciplines, others cater only to selected disciplines. The oldest and most popular one is arXiv which was created back in the 1990s for distributing physics preprints. The site currently hosts papers from various disciplines such as physics, mathematics, computer science, and statistics. The main players in the field of the life sciences are bioRxiv and PeerJ PrePrints. Nature also has a preprint server, Nature Precedings, for biology, medicine, chemistry, and earth science papers. Social science and humanities preprints can be posted on Social Science Research Network.
Why use preprints?
No delays: The most obvious benefit of using preprints is that it removes the element of delay in the journal publication process, and others can benefit from your work immediately.
Open access: Depositing your work in a preprint server is a great way to make your research freely available to all scientists across the world. This is also known as green open access.
Establish priority: At a time when many scientists across the world might be working on the same research idea, putting up a preprint can help establish your priority on an idea or discovery as preprint servers generally mention the date on which the article was posted.
Receive valuable feedback on your work: Once you have posted a preprint, you can send the link to fellow scientists asking for their feedback. Sometimes, scientists spot an error in your paper and comment on it. You can use such feedback to judge the quality of your work and improve it before you submit it to a journal. This will increase its chances of getting accepted by the journal.
Get early attention: Papers posted on preprints servers are usually citable, and thus, you stand a chance of being cited even before your paper is published in a journal. If scientists like your study, they might even share it on social media. Thus, you can get attention for your research even before it is officially published.
Provide evidence of your research: Funding agencies and hiring committees often want to see evidence of your recent work. Thus, delays in publishing can be extremely damaging when you are applying for grants or for a job. Preprints are extremely useful under such circumstances.
Increase chances of collaboration and invitations to meetings: Conference and seminar organizers are often on the lookout for people to present work that has not yet been published. A preprint increases your visibility and can attract meeting organizers as well as potential collaborators.
Gain visibility for a broad range of findings: Novelty is often a prime criterion for being published in a journal. Thus, it can be difficult for authors to publish null findings or replication studies. Preprints eliminate this problem by providing visibility to a much broader range of findings.
Some concerns about preprints
The most important concern that the scientific community has about preprints is that they are not peer reviewed. Peer review is an essential quality control mechanism to weed out essentially flawed or poor quality studies. Additionally, without peer review, there is a possibility of incorrect information reaching the general public through preprints. This can be potentially harmful in areas such as climate science or vaccine safety. Thus, some kinds of work may not be appropriate for dissemination through preprints. Another possible problem is that scientists might upload articles or findings prematurely just to claim priority.
True, these concerns are valid. However, even the existing journal system is not entirely free of these faults, despite being peer reviewed. Problems related to poor quality publications and irreproducible research are rampant as is evident from the increasing number of retractions every year. Additionally, incorrect and potentially harmful information could even be disseminated to the public through published literature, and the stamp of peer review makes such information even more dangerous. Moreover, the onus on authors is really high when it comes to preprints. Authors are therefore more careful of the quality of articles they upload as they do not want to damage their reputation within the scientific community.
Preprints are not a substitute for peer reviewed work and I don’t see preprints replacing journals anytime in the near future. However, they are a practical solution to the current problem of slow journal publication, and as long as they are facilitating the progress of science, they are likely to be used by the scientific community.