Open Science: Why you should preprint your next paper

What are preprints and how do they benefit you and your research community? Plus find tools that help you keep up with the preprint literature.

By George Currie, Content Manager at eLife

Preprinting is the act of sharing an early version of your research, often before journal-organised review. It helps you share your research with others quickly, establishes priority for your findings and can be a way to receive feedback from your community. Many organisations, including eLife and PreReview, are starting to offer and recognise peer reviewed preprints, or allow public discussion on preprints.

But what are the advantages of preprinting your next paper? Here are our five Fs of preprinting:

Preprinting is fast

Preprinting gets your work out into the world much faster, in days not months. No waiting around for reviewer feedback or time spent making revisions, your work is out there. Citable, sharable and with a DOI. Both reviews and revisions can be extremely valuable but it comes at the cost of time and slowing down science communication. Once your work is available others can use it, they can build on your ideas, they can use them to refine their ideas. Your work is pushing science forward.

Preprinting helps you be first

Preprinting establishes priority for your findings or ideas. Waiting for publication can be anxiety inducing but preprinting puts you in control of publication. You won’t have to worry that someone else is going to publish your breakthrough while you’re still waiting for reviews. When you next think about scooping it will be time for ice cream!

Preprinting is free

Nearly all preprint servers are completely free of charge. Free to you as an author, and free to you as a reader. No subscriptions, no APCs. At no cost other than the time to submit, you can ensure that the whole world has access to your research.

Most journals* now have fairly open policies regarding preprinting ahead of publication, so even if you’re publishing behind a paywall you can make a version available for everyone.

*it’s worth checking journal or publisher websites for current policies. You can find a list of policies and links on Wikipedia.

Preprinting enables feedback

Sharing early versions of work can be daunting, but getting feedback helps refine and polish your work. Informal feedback helps start the conversation around your research and shows that people are engaging with it. Public scrutiny and feedback at this stage is far more useful than on a Version of Record as you are still able to implement changes and this could even help reduce time working through peer review feedback later. To help ensure feedback is useful to authors, the FAST framework of preprint feedback suggests feedback should be focused, appropriate, specific and transparent.

Preprinting fights inequalities

Preprints help level the playing field. It’s not about you, your institution or what you can afford to pay. Your work stands on its own merits.

Because preprinting is accessible, free and without the gatekeeping mechanisms typical of journals it makes science communication far more democratic and less prone to structural or implicit biases present in traditional publishing. This gives scientific communities more power and control over how and what they communicate.

Bonus sixth F: How do you filter preprints?

For all the positives of preprinting, it does present a new challenge: how we filter them.

There’s a lot of research out there, it can be hard to keep up as it is. Adding preprints to the mix can make this overwhelming. How can you keep up with preprint literature and how do you know you can trust it?

Some preprint servers still undertake elements of editorial screening to make sure research meets basic standards, and some journals and organisations are focused on preprint review. Beyond this, there are platforms dedicated to preprint curation, such as Sciety and Prelights.

Sciety, developed by eLife, is a free platform that helps researchers highlight and distil the vast and growing preprint literature. It’s a public space for users to comment on preprints, create shareable lists and follow other users for their recommendations. This centralises important work already happening in blogs, private slacks and listservs and makes it available to a wider audience. And helps you find trusted, recommended research that meets your interests.

Where can I read or post preprints?

For research in the biological and medical sciences, bioRxiv and medRxiv are popular preprint servers. Though many more exist, catering for different subject areas and geographies.

ASAPbio Preprint infographics: post your preprint in 5 steps, publishing process, take action in support of preprints.
Image credit: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Singh, Sumeet Pal, Ferguson, Christine, Ahmad, Umar, & Puebla, Iratxe. (2021). ASAPbio Preprint infographics: post your preprint in 5 steps, publishing process, take action in support of preprints. Zenodo.

What does preprinting mean (for science communication)?

Preprinting has been popular in physics and maths for decades. While the uptake has been slower in biological and medical sciences it became an essential means of communication during the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

As adoption grows, so does the potential for preprinting to radically change how we communicate science and the role publishers play in scientific discourse. It can level the playing field for researchers and accelerate scientific discoveries.

Unfortunately “preprinting” is a bit of a misnomer.

The “pre-” makes you think that something has to happen next – before it is “done”. And the “-printing” part supposes that the research is going to be made physical. Neither of these things need to be true and in today’s world they often aren’t.

Versions of record are a hangover of when research needed to be made final so a physical artefact could be created. With the technology we have now, the way we communicate science can better reflect the way science really works.

Preprints help science become a conversation among peers, sharing knowledge, iterating and self correcting faster and more fluidly. Rather than a focus on Versions of Record, final statements etched in stone, we could have a record of versions where our best current understanding is given prominence.

Learn more about the benefits of preprinting with ASAPbio, and consider sharing your next biological or medical paper as a preprint.