Webinar report: What’s the deal with preprints?

The first of our monthly #ECRWednesday webinars explored the advantages of preprints.
Inside eLife

Moderator: Emmanuelle Vire, Junior Team Leader at University College London and member of the eLife early-career advisory group.

Speakers: Jessica Polka, Director of ASAPbio and visiting postdoc at Harvard Medical School; Buz Barstow, Burroughs Welcome Fund CASI Fellow at Princeton University; and Nikolai Slavov, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University.


For decades researchers in physics and maths have been posting their latest research paper on a preprint server called arXiv.org at the same time as they submitted it to a journal. Researchers in the life sciences have been much slower to embrace preprints, but that has changed in recent years, especially since the launch of bioRxiv.org in 2013. These servers are increasingly well-indexed by search engines such as Google Scholar, as well as preprint-specific search engines such as PrePubMed.

Posting a preprint allows an author to make their results available much sooner than is possible with a peer-reviewed journal, although many preprints go on to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This speed was what first appealed to Buz Barstow: “as an early-career investigator, I felt that there was a hell of a lot of pressure to get my work out there to the public […] as quickly as possible”.

Preprint servers also allow authors to receive feedback on their work much earlier than when they publish in traditional journals. Barstow found that this feedback helped him work out what to research next: “it led us to ask the question much, much sooner – what’s the next paper we’re going to do, where can we focus our research efforts – six, seven months ahead of where we would have been otherwise”. The comments Nikolai Slavov received on his preprint (posted to bioRXiv) have been “civil and constructive”. Furthermore, several of the comments came from “the most respected experts in the field”.

Barstow, Slavov and Jessica Polka all agreed that preprints complement publication in a traditional journal, rather than allowing authors to sidestep formal peer review. According to Polka: “journals provide a way of stamping credibility on papers”. Many journals accept submissions that have been posted as preprints, although there are still some journals that do not: this page lists the preprint policies of most major journals. Indeed, PLOS Genetics now has editors that search the preprint archives for promising papers to invite for review. If the popularity of preprints continues to increase, the role of peer-reviewed journals might change. For example, if we ever reach a stage where the majority of papers are first made public as preprints, the principle role of a journal might be to highlight those papers that are considered to be particularly significant or reliable in a given area of research.

So with these benefits, why aren’t preprints used more widely in the life sciences? Many people are concerned that they will be “scooped” if they share their work before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, as Polka pointed out, researchers already share such work at conferences. Furthermore, the date stamp on a preprint can help researchers to establish priority for a piece of work.

Emmanuelle Vire, who moderated the webinar, sees a bright future for preprints: “when I was young […] I thought you would just go into the lab, do some experiments and then share the results with the people who love the science as much as you do. I think that [preprints] are getting as close to that idea as possible”.

Further information and resources:

Jessica Polka’s webinar slides: http://www.slideshare.net/jpolka/elife-ecrwednesday-webinar-whats-the-deal-with-preprints

ASAPbio: http://asapbio.org

bioRXiv: http://biorxiv.org

PrePubMed (indexes preprints from a number of servers): http://www.prepubmed.org

List of academic journals by preprint policy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_journals_by_preprint_policy

Papers mentioned in the webinar:

Research on the citation of preprints: https://arxiv.org/abs/0906.5418

How preprints can help establish priority of discovery: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.16931

Post-webinar Twitter chat

Storify part one: https://storify.com/eLife_careers/what-s-the-deal-with-preprints

Storify part two: https://storify.com/eLife_careers/what-s-the-deal-with-preprints-5811ca759928d5c142f9f5e7

Storify part three: https://storify.com/eLife_careers/what-s-the-deal-with-preprints-5811e48597f49f4f5528fd9f