- A preprint is a research manuscript that is made freely available online by its authors before the manuscript has been peer reviewed.
- Unlike traditional journal articles, preprints can be posted quickly and are free to post and read.
- Preprinting can have career benefits for researchers because journal articles that first appear as preprints may be cited more often than articles that are not distributed as preprints, and citation counts are a factor in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions.
- Because preprints are not peer reviewed when they are posted, how preprints should be evaluated remains unclear.
- At Research Square, we encourage authors to leave constructive comments on their colleagues’ preprints to help address this evaluation issue. Constructive comments follow normal guidelines for good peer reviews.
In preprinting, researchers make their manuscripts freely available online before those manuscripts have been peer reviewed. Preprints are free to upload and read, and they can be made available as soon as manuscripts are complete; thus, preprinting avoids the high costs and lengthy publication times associated with journals. However, the benefits of preprinting remain unclear to many researchers. In this article, we show that preprinting can increase the impact and decrease the time to publication of preprinted manuscripts that are eventually submitted to journals. Because impact (as measured by citation counts) is a factor in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions, preprinting may help researchers to advance in their careers. Moreover, submitting manuscripts to a preprint platform that provides digital object identifiers (DOIs) helps protect the ideas in those manuscripts from being stolen, and preprinting is becoming increasingly accepted among funding agencies and journal publishers. However, how the research presented in preprints should be evaluated remains an open question. Journal publication and citation counts likely provide some basis for evaluating preprints, but these mechanisms only become meaningful some time after preprints are posted. Some preprint platforms also allow for public comments or provide other mechanisms to enable the research community to rapidly evaluate the content of individual preprints. At Research Square, we encourage researchers to use these mechanisms to help the authors of preprints improve their manuscripts and ensure the quality of the research literature.
What are preprints?
Preprinting is a new element of the research landscape that turns normal research publishing on its head. Presently, many manuscripts are submitted directly to journals and become available only after peer reviewers and editors conclude that the manuscripts are ready for publication. In preprinting, manuscripts that have not been peer reviewed are made freely available online. These preprints can then be submitted to a journal for formal peer review or evaluated by the research community in real time through the platforms that host the preprints. Thus, while traditional journals evaluate manuscripts before publishing them, research is evaluated after it is posted in preprinting.
Preprints are free to both read and publish, unlike articles in traditional journals. Many journals are available only through research libraries because subscriptions to those journals are too expensive for individuals to purchase on their own. Thus, many research articles are not available to the general public, even though much research is carried out using money from public funding agencies. Articles in open access journals are free to download; however, the article publishing charges for many open access journals are high enough that some researchers, particularly those in developing countries, cannot pay them. Thus, preprints remove the costs of reading and publishing research articles imposed by traditional journals.
The rapid sharing enabled by preprinting also distinguishes preprints from traditional journal publishing. Publishing in a journal is often a slow process; in one recent survey, the average time required to publish a journal article was over a year . There are many reasons that journal articles may take a long time to be published, but key among them are the continuing increase in the number of articles that are published each year , the challenge in finding peer reviewers caused by this increase in published articles, and the need to reformat and resubmit rejected manuscripts [1, 3]. With preprinting, this lengthy wait is bypassed.
Given that preprints provide a free, rapid means of disseminating new research, it’s not surprising that the number of preprints posted each year is increasing rapidly. As of late 2018, over 2,000 preprints were being posted each month to major biology-oriented preprint platforms; over 24,000 preprints appeared on those platforms in 2018 . These numbers represent a 20-fold increase over the corresponding values for a decade earlier . While preprints represent a small fraction of total research output, the rate of growth in preprint publishing is much more rapid than that of traditional journal articles [2, 4].
How can preprinting benefit researchers?
The career benefits of preprinting for individual researchers may be substantial. At least two recent studies have shown that journal articles that are made available as preprints before being published in a journal are cited more frequently than those that are not [5, 6]. Given that citation counts affect hiring, promotion and tenure decisions, preprinting should arguably be considered by all researchers, especially early-career researchers. Moreover, preprinted manuscripts that are submitted to a journal may be published faster than those that do not appear as preprints; at one megajournal, preprinted manuscripts are published an average of 19 days sooner than manuscripts that have not been preprinted .
Although many researchers remain cautious of preprinting because they fear that their work will be stolen (“scooped”), one key feature of preprint platforms helps mitigate this concern. When a preprint is published, a digital object identifier (DOI) is issued. This DOI enables citation of the preprint and includes information on when it was made available online. Thus, preprinting provides an immutable time stamp for research contributions that can be used to establish who had an idea first. In cases in which preprinted manuscripts are copied and published in journals, the DOIs can be provided to the journals’ editors as evidence of research misconduct. Reputable journals will then retract the plagiarized articles.
Moreover, journal publishers and funding agencies are becoming increasingly accepting of preprints. At the time of writing, one community-updated list shows 35 publishers whose editorial policies specifically permit the publication of preprints, including SpringerNature, Elsevier, IEEE, and Cambridge University Press . While some journals still do not publish manuscripts that have appeared online as preprints, these policies are likely to shift as preprints become a routine part of research publishing. Moreover, some funding agencies now permit the citation of preprints in grant applications (e.g., the Wellcome Trust , the US National Institutes of Health , and the European Research Council ).
How can preprints be assessed?
Assessment and quality control remain key issues in preprinting. Unlike journal articles, which are peer reviewed before they are published, preprints are generally not examined by independent researchers before they are made available. Thus, it may not be clear which preprints in a given field represent well-done research.
Two features of normal research practice may help provide this quality control. First, many preprinted manuscripts are subsequently submitted to journals, where they are evaluated through the normal peer review process. Those manuscripts that are then published presumably represent well-done research. Second, as noted above, preprints with DOIs can be cited just like peer-reviewed journal articles. The number of citations that a preprint receives should approximate the value of the research that preprint describes.
However, both of these traditional mechanisms for evaluating preprints are relatively slow, and there is an active discussion as to how preprints can be evaluated in real time. Some preprint platforms enable members of the research community to comment on preprints, although the value of such comments is debated . It has also been suggested that a form of self-organizing peer review could be instituted directly on preprint platforms by providing appropriate incentives to participating researchers .
At Research Square, we encourage members of the research community to leave constructive comments on their colleagues’ preprints. If constructive commenting becomes a widespread practice, it may help to improve the overall quality of preprints and the research literature as a whole. Constructive comments follow the same guidelines as good peer reviews; for suggestions, see [14, 15].
In conclusion, preprints provide important benefits relative to the traditional, journal-based model of research publishing in that they permit rapid communication of new results and are free to upload and read. Preprinting can benefit individual researchers through increasing citation counts and decreasing the time to publication for manuscripts that are eventually published as journal articles. Preprints are also becoming increasingly accepted by both funding agencies and journal publishers. How preprints should be evaluated remains an open question, but both traditional and novel evaluation methods may help solve this problem. At Research Square, we encourage researchers to comment on their colleagues’ preprints because constructive comments may help improve both preprints and published articles.
Thank you to Jodi Harrell & Kristen Kato who contributed to the final version of this article.
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Date of Publication: 3-31-2020
This article was originally published on the AJE Scholar Author Resource Center.