What we have learned about preprints

We discuss feedback from the community as eLife moves to only reviewing preprints.
Inside eLife
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The growing popularity of preprints has profoundly changed the publishing landscape, providing researchers with a way to reach the widest possible audience for their work at a time of their choosing. The author-directed publishing of so much research prior to formal peer review is a challenge to traditional journal publishing, but at the same time this is a huge opportunity for eLife and other journals striving to optimize peer review for the age of the internet.

As part of eLife’s transition to a new “publish first, then peer review” model, which we announced in December of last year, eLife is now only peer reviewing in depth articles that have been made available as a preprint. Our new editorial process combines the immediacy and openness of preprints with the scrutiny and curation of peer review to create a “refereed preprint” (see also “Preprints and peer review at eLife” for a description of the process).

The advantages of posting a preprint are well documented.

  • Most importantly, preprints allow researchers to rapidly disseminate their findings to the widest possible audience, without delays incumbent in pre-publication peer review, increasing its impact among scientists and hastening its application.
  • Preprints establish priority and are accepted not only as evidence of progress in job applications, but also by an increasing number of funding organizations.
  • Preprints are regularly cited in research articles and reviews, and early evidence suggests that articles that start off as preprints are cited more frequently than not-preprinted counterparts (Serghiou and Ioannidis, Altmetric Scores, Citations, and Publication of Studies Posted as Preprints; Fu and Hughey, Releasing a preprint is associated with more attention and citations for the peer-reviewed article; Fraser et al, The effect of bioRxiv preprints on citations and altmetrics).
  • Preprints are changing the culture of scientific discourse, through open discussion, transparency, constructive criticism, and helping science self-correct. For example, preprints are now regularly discussed in journal clubs and on social media.
  • Unlike journal articles, preprints can be updated, allowing researchers to respond to feedback and include additional data and analyses as they are acquired.

In a recent survey, we learned that greater transparency and more open communication is an important goal for our community – 54% of respondents chose it as their top priority in improving research communication and culture in biology and medicine (followed by calls for “Improving reproducibility” (43%), and “Global equity of access to publish and read research” (42%), see Figure 1). In the same survey, early-career group leaders indicated that “Constructive discussion about new research pre- and post-peer review” is one of the key improvements they would like to see in scholarly publishing going forward (42% of PIs who led their groups for less than five years see that as the top priority in improving research communication and culture in biology and medicine).

Preprint deposition of eLife submissions

Since March 2020, posting of preprints to bioRxiv or medRxiv has been the default for in depth review at eLife, although authors could opt out without an explanation. Many of our authors are enthusiastic about the effects preprints are having on scientific and medical publishing and research at large, and we are seeing increasingly high levels of preprint deposition (Figure 2).

From March 17 to May 31, 2021, we received 719 full submissions (articles that are invited for in-depth peer review), of which 615 (86%) were posted as a preprint (413 by the authors and 202 by eLife). Preprint adoption varies by country (Figure 3) and field (Figure 4), although in all cases a majority of eLife authors are already choosing to preprint their work.

Since our December announcement that we are moving to a preprint only model (Eisen et al, “Implementing a "publish, then review" model of publishing”), we have been asking authors who opt out of pre-printing to explain their choice.

64 authors (62% of the authors who opted out of posting a preprint) completed the free-text field during full submission from March 17 to May 31 to explain their reasons for opting out of preprint submission. 23 (36%) cited competition as their concern; 20 (31%) wanted to post a preprint later in the process, for example after peer review; and 8 (12%) were concerned that posting a preprint would hinder their chances of being published in another journal if the outcome at eLife was not positive. We have also been discussing these and other concerns about preprinting with our editors and authors, and we have initiated a working group at eLife to explore the reservations about preprints further.

Below, we list common reservations about preprints expressed by our authors and other community members, and discuss how they can be addressed.

Reservations about preprint deposition and the ways to alleviate them

1. Fear of being scooped.

One of the common reservations about preprinting is that they provide an opportunity for competitors to learn about one’s results and use them to scoop the preprint authors.

While it is understandable that authors would be concerned about this, surveys suggest that being scooped based on a preprint is very uncommon (Sever et al, bioRxiv: the preprint server for biology). On the contrary, for an increasing number of scientists, institutions and funders, preprints serve to establish priority. Preprints have a DOI, which offers a permanent and public timestamp – more so than initial journal submission or sharing one’s results at a scientific meeting. Indeed one can argue that, with the growing acceptance of preprints, they actually provide the best defence against scooping as they allow authors to get their research out without the unpredictable delays of journal publishing.

In addition, most scientific and medical journals these days, including eLife, encourage preprinting, and therefore operate under clear anti-scooping policies that do not consider articles published while a manuscript is under consideration as prior art that diminishes the impact of the work being reviewed.

2. Diminished opportunities for a high-impact publication.

A related concern is that leading journals will view preprinted work as already published and will therefore refuse to consider it for publication.

While this was once an issue, nowadays all top journals and major scientific publishers encourage preprints, and routinely publish exciting new articles that were already made available as preprints.

Countering any lingering concerns, there are good indications that articles that are first available as preprints enjoy higher number of citations (Serghiou and Ioannidis, Altmetric Scores, Citations, and Publication of Studies Posted as Preprints; Fu and Hughey, Releasing a preprint is associated with more attention and citations for the peer-reviewed article; Fraser et al, The effect of bioRxiv preprints on citations and altmetrics).

3. Lack of recognition of preprints and peer-reviewed preprints from funders and institutions.

ASAPBio, a scientist-driven nonprofit working to drive open and innovative communication in the life sciences, maintains a growing list of funders who accept preprints as records of scholarly productivity. Indeed, some funders, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, the European Research Council, Wellcome, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) encourage preprints as a means of early sharing and public dissemination of research they fund. In our own annual perception survey, with 2,909 responses this year, only 18% of respondents said their institutions recognise preprints in assessment, but close to a half of our respondents simply aren’t aware whether that is the case at all.

In communities that have been slower to embrace preprints, the incentives to do so may be gradually changing. In China, for example, government funding agencies have started an important initiative to disregard the journal impact factor in judging the value of a research work, and preprint posting is in line with the trend.

A major issue raised by funders and other institutions is that preprints are not formally peer reviewed and thus the institution can not be sure of its quality and validity. This is precisely what eLife’s new editorial system is designed to address, and we hope that, as the peer review of preprints becomes more widespread, this perception will change.

4. Concerns about sharing the work with the research community before it was critically reviewed by peers.

Many researchers appreciate peer review as an important quality control process and feel they would be embarrassed, and possibly suffer negative career consequences, by having a mistake pointed out publicly.

However, eLife and many other journals (including Biology Direct, The EMBO Journal, PeerJ, Nature Communications, and PLOS) publish reviewer reports alongside published manuscripts. These often contain substantive criticism of the initial submission, but because they also contain the author response, the process is generally perceived as beneficial for science and not as a demerit for the authors.

In our own survey mentioned above, early-career researchers have been more likely than any other group to support eLife’s new approach to accompanying preprints with peer reviews, as they see the opportunity in endorsing the value of their early-released results. As digital natives, they are more likely to embrace the opportunities of opening the scholarly commentary prior and post publication currently not realised by the journal publishing system.

5. Adverse effects on public perception or practice (especially with medical studies, and most recently with many COVID preprints being reported in the news).

Preprint servers including medRxiv and bioRxiv offer a clear warning to readers that the content of research hasn’t been formally peer reviewed, and they link to the peer-reviewed version once that’s available in a journal publication. Notably, although the servers don't offer peer review themselves, each article shared on these preprint servers undergoes basic scrutiny. As medRxiv explains: “All manuscripts undergo a basic screening process for offensive and/or non-scientific content and for material that might pose a health risk and are checked for plagiarism.”

While it’s true that peer review is intended – among other things – as a way of assuring the quality of scientific output reaching the wider public, it is also true that with the ever-expanding range of journals, most articles find their way into publication sooner or later, with or without a thorough review.

We appreciate that there will be cases, for example, if a study reports a new drug or there’s the potential for dual-use research, when peer review would be preferable prior to posting the work, and in these rare cases studies might not be suitable for preprint posting.

6. Needing external permission to post a preprint.

At some institutions, strict rules apply regarding research communication in general, and researchers need to seek approval for publishing their work, e.g., at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in the United States. There are no reasons for preprints to be treated any differently to other kinds of research communication, and they are fit to undergo exactly the same approval process.

In terms of copyright for reproduced figures, reused data, and similar elements of the manuscript, preprints are publications and therefore permissions for reuse and republishing here would be governed by the license adopted by the author or preprint server, just as for other publications.

7. Intellectual property issues.

As per the advice offered by ASAPBio, “Preprints, like journal articles, are considered public disclosures, which can affect a patent application. Therefore, if you intend to file an application to patent work disclosed in your paper, discuss the situation with your technology transfer office before preprinting.”

We see a great opportunity for life science, medical and health science researchers in leveraging preprints as a major vehicle of rapid, author-driven dissemination of research results. We hope that the research community will join us in shaping a better future for research communication, one where authors control when their work is published, where the evaluation process is decoupled from the work’s publication, and where there’s a culture of responsible, respectful, open and transparent public review and discourse.

Further reading and links

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