Research often follows a familiar cycle of sharing. First, early drafts and figures showcasing new data are shared with colleagues individually or through seminars. Then, work may be turned into an abstract and poster for a conference. Finally, the final draft is completed meticulously and submitted to a journal.
Then, you wait. The journal finds reviewers, shares their comments, and the paper is revised. Another review may be needed before acceptance or rejection. Rejection requires yet another round of reviews from a different journal after reformatting the manuscript and updating your cover letter.
But is this the only model for sharing? More and more researchers are turning to preprints to share their results sooner. But what is a preprint? And how does it benefit researchers? Read on to find out, or jump ahead to one of the sections that most interests you:
- Definition of preprints
- History of preprints (and data about their use)
- Benefits of preprints
- Concerns about preprints
Definition of a preprint
Put simply, a preprint is a full draft of a research paper that is shared publicly before it has been peer reviewed. Preprints may be lightly edited or screened, but they are typically not typeset or built into full web pages. In today’s scholarly publishing world, preprints are frequently given a digital object identifier (DOI) so they can be cited in other research papers.
A preprint is a full draft of a research paper that is shared publicly before it has been peer reviewed.
History of preprints
Preprints (sometimes called “working papers”) have a long history in the physical sciences. In 1991, physicists at Los Alamos National Labs created a central server for drafts of new research articles. As it became more and more popular, the server was relaunched online as arXiv, hosted by Cornell University. The arXiv site now hosts over 1.3 million research preprints in physical sciences and math, with over 10,000 new submissions each month.
Physical scientists have long embraced the sharing of work early, with a preprint on arXiv useful for receiving feedback before submission to a journal. However, other fields are beginning to embrace the same concept despite some concerns about sharing work early (see below).
In 2013, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press launched bioRxiv, a preprint server for life sciences, and the Modern Language Association launched MLA Commons, later expanded into Humanities Commons. Subsequently, there have been new preprints launched in many new fields, including chemRxiv and a wide range of subject-specific preprints supported by the Center for Open Science. These sites have helped bring the preprint concept to new fields, fueling strong growth in the use of preprints in recent years. The graph below from PrePubMed (a preprint aggregator with no affiliation to PubMed) specifically focuses on preprints in the life sciences, which illustrate the growing trend.
Data from prepubmed.org, retrieved February 20, 2018.
Benefits of preprints
Although we’ve clarified what a preprint is and when they started, it may not be inherently obvious how they benefit researchers. Overall, the biggest benefits fall into three areas: credit, feedback, and visibility.
By posting a citable preprint with your research results, you can firmly stake a claim to the work you’ve done. If there is any subsequent discussion of who found a particular result first, you can point to the preprint as a public, conclusive record of your data. For this reason, the US National Institutes of Health now allow researchers to cite preprints in their grant applications.
In the traditional system, a submitted manuscript receives feedback from two or three peer reviewers before publication. Of course, authors have undoubtedly asked for feedback from their lab and colleagues at their university, but there is no wider round of commenting until after official publication. With a preprint, other researchers can discover your work sooner, potentially pointing out critical flaws or errors, suggesting new studies or data that strengthen your argument, or even recommending a collaboration that will lead to publication in a more prestigious journal. This feedback can be made publicly through commenting, but it mostly occurs through email. Here is one scientist’s story about the benefit of sharing his work as a preprint:
Last year I posted a preprint.— Dan Quintana (@dsquintana) February 10, 2018
Doing this set off a chain of events that convinced me I should post a preprint for ALL my manuscripts.
Here’s my story (1/17)
Visibility (and citations)
Preprints are not the final form of a research paper for most authors. Thankfully, preprints and infrastructure providers like CrossRef link to the final published article whenever possible, meaning that your preprint can serve to bring new readers to your published paper. In fact, a recent small-scale study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a statistically significant increase in both Altmetric attention scores (which capture mentions on social media, online, and in the news) and citations of the published paper when authors had posted the work first as a preprint. The citation effect is small, and more studies will be needed to confirm this finding, but the evidence for more attention in news and social media is strong (nearly a 3-fold increase in Altmetric attention scores). The more places you can be discovered by your peers and the public, the more you will be discovered.
Posting a preprint led to a significant increase in Altmetric attention scores and citations for the final published paper in a recent study
Concerns about posting a preprint
Some researchers have raised valid concerns about preprints, but as they continue to become more popular, the benefits outweigh the risks. For one, there is the potential that another lab with more resources could repeat an interesting experiment from a preprint and publish it before the preprint’s authors do. While this may be more of a concern in a crowded research field, most studies will not be scooped in this way. Instead, the results shared in the preprint can help shape future research in the field faster. Preprints can actually guard against the problem of new results being taken and incorporated into a rival’s study by clearly establishing priority. With the data and results posted publicly with a DOI, it becomes a permanent part of the scholarly record – one that can be referenced in any dispute over who discovered something first.
In the past, posting a preprint may have caused a journal to reject the submission for prior publication, and some still share this concern. However, the vast majority of journals now acknowledge the utility of preprints and encourage (or at least allow) their use. A list of journal preprint policies can be found on Wikipedia, but it is best to contact journals you frequently submit to or consult their guidelines to confirm their policy on preprints.
Preprints are a small but rapidly growing piece of scholarly communication. They present several strong advantages to improve the way results are shared, and we hope you will consider giving preprints a try.
Research Square, the company behind AJE, is launching a new website to build off the success of preprints and help you get feedback to strengthen your paper before submission to a journal, with or without public posting. Learn more about Minerva here.