Within the modern-day scientific publication system, print and digital publications are the primary dissemination mechanism that researchers use to share discoveries with the research community and society. However, throughout history, scientific publishing practices have been repeatedly reimagined in various forms including oral transactions; learned periodicals; commercial speculations that originated from the book trade; magazines targeted at niche audiences such as, scientific, literary, and popular readers; and print and digital postprint journal articles. Each of these dissemination formats were considered publications. The word “publication” connotes the act of publishing a book, periodical, paper, etc. The prefix (public) means “done, perceived, or existing in open view” and the suffix (ation) means “an action or process.” Hence, publication signifies “the action or process of making public,” and any process where ideas are made public can be considered a “publication.” Today, journal publications are the dominant communication mode. Yet, the publication paradigm evolved from a “preprint” paradigm, where research was orally disseminated, to a “postprint” paradigm, where research is published in print.
During the 17th century and 18th centuries, scientific meetings, known as oral transactions, were the primary publication mechanism researchers used to share their research by orally disseminating discoveries to their peers and the public before their research had been finalized in a printed form. In this sense, oral transactions were “preprints,” literally occurring before print. The distribution capacity of printed research was limited because printing presses were inefficient, slow, and could not produce material for the masses, and paper costs were high. Meetings were the fastest system for researchers to share their ideas before they could be published in print and shared with a wider audience. In 1665, Philosophical Transactions and Journal des Scavanes were created. These learned periodicals were written compilations of discoveries presented at meetings and served as the basis of the modern day scientific journal. Through the combination of meetings and periodicals, researchers could share their findings with the public, who were viewed as integral members and co-participants in the creation of knowledge by providing community evaluation.
In order for research to be communicated with the public, it first had to be approved and filtered through the presidents and secretaries of the societies that organized the meetings. At the time, the most prestigious society was the Royal Society, which assumed management of Philosophical Transactions in 1752. Within this society, a dissemination hierarchy and power structure was established wherein the presidents and secretaries were the gatekeepers that controlled dissemination and determined the discoveries that were valuable and worthy of being published. The power presidents and secretaries had was “widely understood and potentially manipulable, and society officers were accused of abusing it at different times throughout the period in view.” By filtering the information that could be presented at meetings, and subsequently written in periodicals, Philosophical Transactions established the four components of the communication process that continue to be utilized by journals today: registration, verification, dissemination, and archiving.
Despite the speed of oral dissemination, and the preliminary, yet insufficient, capacity it offered researchers to claim their ideas, researchers valued printed publications more than oral communications because they concretized their discoveries by permanently date and time stamping in hardcopy when they claimed priority over their research. Print publications were the surest mechanism to prevent ideas from being scooped. In the late 1800s, during the communications revolution, new printing technologies were developed, transportation was improved, the cost of paper was reduced, and literacy rates increased. During this period, a new market for scientific publications developed, driven by the emergence of university-based researchers. Publishing research in print had become invaluable in advancing an academic’s career. Responding to the need for a formal printed academic medium to disseminate research, the Royal Society formalized printed journal articles, also known as postprints, and print publications became the primary dissemination mechanism.
To enhance research dissemination, in 1961 the National Institutes of Health established Information Exchange Groups (IEGs), a system to distribute manuscript drafts of biological research that had not been published by a journal. Although these manuscripts were in printed format, because they had not been peer reviewed, they were considered “preliminary” and became known as preprints. In 1971, IEGs were terminated because journals refused to accept manuscripts that had been shared with other researchers prior to publication in a journal.
From the IEG trial, preprints had been reborn and reimagined. Instead of taking an oral format, they were now in print. In 1990, with the launch of the World Wide Web, physicists and mathematicians recognized that preprints could be reimagined yet again, this time as text shared online. In 1991, a preprint repository, arXiv, was created for disseminating preprints and discussing their content before they were submitted to a journal. Attempts to replicate arXiv for the biological and life-science community were trialed, including: ClinMed Netprints, from 1999–2005; Nature Precedings, from 2007–2012; PeerJ Preprints, 2013–present; and bioRxiv, 2013–present.
Today, numerous preprint repositories exist. Preprints serve as a mechanism for rapidly sharing results and claiming rights to the content through digital object identifiers (DOIs) that definitively associate researchers in date and time to their research. Researchers’ use of preprints as a dissemination mechanism has been increasing year-over-year. In 2013, an average of 233 biomedical preprints were posted 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. Hand in hand with researchers’ acceptance of preprints, journals have recognized their value; over 85% of journals consider manuscripts for publication that have already been shared as a preprint.
With preprints now a mainstay research dissemination mechanism, the scientific publication system has come full circle and returned to its preprint origins of the 17th century. Over 355 years have passed since the primordial oral preprint paradigm was established, where researchers could rapidly share their work with the community but could not claim rights in print to their content due to the impermanence of oration. The modern-day paradigm empowers researchers through immediate dissemination, a claim to primacy, and unprecedented exposure to a network of collaboration and engagement around the content.
Image: A meeting of the Royal Society in London, with Isaac Newton in the chair. Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia