In the fast-paced “publish or perish” scientific publishing environment, researchers compete to conduct and disseminate research results. Traditionally, researchers are credited for their discoveries once their results are publicly shared with the scientific community. Over 355 years ago, when the foundation for the modern-day scientific journal was established, researchers claimed rights to their work by publishing their research in journals.
Before it can be esteemed, the traditional publishing paradigm mandates that research be peer reviewed, accepted by an editor, and published as a postprint (a finalized manuscript disseminated by a journal). Once published, the work is considered protected from being “scooped,” the process by which other researchers get recognition for a discovery by publishing similar, if not identical, work first.
For example, two labs could simultaneously investigate the same idea and submit similar results to different journals at the same time, but the one that gets published first will earn the right to claim priority over the findings. The other lab is left in second place, having been scooped.
The fear that research will be scooped is the driving factor that leads researchers to view publication as a necessity: a means of protecting their intellectual property prior to publicly sharing and discussing their research. For this reason, reasonable assurance of ultimate publication and a speedy submission-to-publication time are two critical components weighed by researchers in considering where to submit their work.
Unfortunately, while publication may afford researchers protection over their work in the public domain, no journal guarantees that research will be published quickly, if at all. In fact:
- Peer review can take months to years to complete, often between 14 weeks to one year, and between four to eight years in some instances.
- The process can be biased against publishing studies testing unconventional treatments, authors from less prestigious institutions, studies reporting negative or mixed outcomes and favor those reporting positive outcomes, results that contradict the reviewers’ theoretical perspective, and submissions from outside the United States.
- The trade-off for immediacy promised by peer review - namely, that it effectively mitigates the dissemination of flawed or erroneous research - is unconvincing. Randomized trials examining reviewers’ ability to detect errors demonstrate that ~75% of reviewers fail to detect major errors in manuscripts and 68% do not recognize when conclusions are not supported by results.
The end result of this slow, inefficient, and biased process is that journals fail to accept and publish a large quantity of research. For example:
- Out of 807 clinical trials, 48% were unpublished.
- Out of 594 clinical trials, 50% were unpublished.
- Out of 631 clinical trials funded by the NIH, less than half were published after 30 months of a study’s completion, and one-third remained unpublished after a median of 51 months.
- Out of 13,327 clinical trials posted in ClinicalTrials.gov, only 38.3% reported results.
- Out of 29,729 abstracts that presented randomized controlled clinical trial results, 37% were never disseminated in a full publication, and those with positive results were 30% more likely to be published.
These results demonstrate that by undermining dissemination, the publication system paradoxically impairs researchers’ ability to publish, receive credit, and protect their work from being scooped. The modern-day system’s inefficiencies have persisted relatively unchanged for two main reasons:
- Culture: Since 1665, the mores of scholarly communication have engrained in scientists that the only method to protect their work was by publishing research in print in a journal.
- Infrastructure: Until the advent of computers and the World Wide Web, print publishing was the only means with which to effectively share research with the extended community. The lack of a digital infrastructure made the word “publication” a loaded term for researchers who were dependent on the print publication process as the only mechanism to disseminate research in a concretized format.
These two forces left researchers fearful that their material could be scooped if it was not published in print. Hence, researchers were left with one option: to publish their research in a journal, which was uniquely empowered to timestamp and copyright their work and make it available to the scientific community.
The root of the fear that research will be scooped stems from the relationship researchers have with the word “publication,” and a matter of semantics derived from the origins of the publication system. Publishing research is simply a process that links researchers to ideas and results presented in manuscripts. The process certifies that the authors completed the work, discovered the results, and shared the material with the community at a point in time.
Traditionally, print publishing was the only dissemination mechanism that concretized researchers’ ideas in permanent form. However, in the digital age, “publication” in the traditional sense is not necessary. Any method of validating what research was conducted and when it was shared allows researchers to claim rights and protect their work from being scooped. Thus, the word “publication” is an arbitrary term. What is important is the symbolism of the publishing action.
The Web 2.0-era allows researchers to disseminate work online in repositories that allow authors to publish manuscript drafts of their research as preprints. Preprint repositories have a low barrier to entry, nearly guaranteeing research will be publicly shared. Rather than needing to appease peer reviewers and be accepted by an editor, the work only needs to match the scope of the repository, meet basic publication norms, and be ethically safe to disseminate publicly. Repositories mint preprints with digital object identifiers (DOIs) that definitively associate researchers with their work.
Preprints published with a DOI offer the same protection from being scooped as postprints published with a DOI: by publicly branding that the work was shared with the community at a given time point via a preprint repository, thereby bestowing priority to the author. Preprints are advantageous compared to postprints because they give researchers control over the timing of dissemination. Researchers do not have to wait months to years for publishers to approve, peer review, and publish the material. Thus, preprint dissemination provides researchers with the two critical components that protect research from being scooped, neither of which a journal can afford:
- A near guarantee, through an unbiased system, that the research will be disseminated
- Immediate dissemination of research at a time determined by the author.
Ultimately, the culture that created the fear of scooping is a consequence of the publication system’s structure, which inherently impedes the dissemination of research. Now that the digital infrastructure is available, the onus falls on researchers to recognize the value of preprint repositories and to utilize them to share research.
While preprint repositories are an advent of the 20th century, researchers’ knowledge of their existence and of their ability to provide dissemination control has only significantly advanced across disciplines within the last decade. In 2013, an average of 233 biomedical preprints were disseminated per month, representing 0.19% of all published biomedical literature that year. As of June 2020, 9,911 biomedical preprints per month were posted, representing 8.08% of all published biomedical literature in 2020, showing that preprint usage is growing year-over-year.
The power of a preprint, minted with a DOI, to protect content and secure the primacy of a researcher’s work, is undeniable and should be more fully and globally exploited. It is only by recognizing that the 355-year-old publication system paradigm is flawed - that it shortchanges researchers and society with respect to immediacy and exposure – that a new era and paradigm can be implemented. Preprint publication brings the research community one step closer to a faster and fairer publishing model, one that puts researchers in control over the lifecycle of their work and levels the playing field so that all researchers are closer to common ground.