Early sharing not the only driver for preprint use

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Sowmya Swaminathan

Sowmya Swaminathan discusses the implications for publishers in helping to foster open research practices

Sharing research and data early and openly played an essential role in our understanding and development of responses to the pandemic – on the one hand helping to speed up the validation of data so that researchers could trust it, and on the other hand, helping to combat scientific misinformation, so that wider society could trust it. 

Yet despite what ‘being open’ showed to be possible, there are still some barriers and hesitations around both the development and adoption of open research practices – within and outside of the research community – the early sharing of research being one of them.

A 2021 report released by RORI showed that only five per cent of all peer reviewed Covid-19 studies had an associated preprint, despite the awareness of the benefits, and enthusiasm for an open research future. The 2021 State of Open Data report also showed that despite year on year progress being seen around awareness of the principles of sharing, there is a decline in willingness on the part of authors to share their data and research.

In addition, a survey conducted by Springer Nature on authors’ general perceptions of preprints, demonstrated that despite 85 per cent of respondents declaring awareness of preprints and support for early sharing, opt-in rates were significantly lower. So why, despite the drive and willingness to move to an open research future and desire for early sharing, is there this gap between willingness and action? Conclusions from the above surveys suggest a number of reasons:

  • Lack of understanding around copyright and IP policies;

  • Concern around data sharing and its misuse ahead of publication; and

  • Lack of credit/ recognition for early sharing.

Springer Nature also recently surveyed over 152,000 users of In Review, a preprint service integrated with peer review. The intention was to better understand the gap between the high number of authors that say they support early sharing, and the lower number that actually opt in to do so, and how authors’ experience of In Review could offer insight into what publishers could be doing better to support open research practices and better enable early sharing.

The survey demonstrated that key drivers amongst authors for early sharing were:

  • Faster communication of research findings (43 per cent) and early feedback (32 per cent)

  • No financial cost (41 per cent)

  • Increased research output by being able to share ahead of peer review (27 per cent)

But what is interesting, is that while early sharing came out as important for authors, it is not their only driving motivator when using and selecting such services and adopting more open research practices. Authors are looking for more integrated services and want those platforms to offer multiple features that not only enhance the sharing, development and discoverability of their work, but also enable them to track and monitor its progress:   

  • Transparency was the top feature for authors when selecting an integrated preprint service:

    • 71 per cent of authors said that greater transparency of the peer review process at journals was useful. Through its integration with peer review, In Review enables authors to see specific details of peer review and track their article, providing a high level of transparency into an often 'hidden' process.

    • 50 per cent of authors said that the more transparent the service was, the more they felt it was credible, as it enabled greater accountability for the journal

  • Integrated early sharing - authors surveyed stated that ease of use (69 per cent) and being able to share their manuscript as a preprint at the same time as submitting it to a journal (BMC/ Springer journals) (83 per cent) had an impact on where they choose to take their work. We also learnt that this type of integrated solution is attractive for researchers in LMICs and early career researchers.

Of those surveyed, 47 per cent of users were first time preprinters (with a large proportion being early career researchers, or coming from LMIC countries) – suggesting that publishers' roles in fostering and integrating open practices, via integrated services such as In Review, has significant impact on encouraging adoption of early sharing and could provide a model to be replicated to encourage the adoption of other kinds of open practices.

The insights are clear. While we as a community have a long way to travel in terms of supporting the take up of open research practices, publishers have a powerful role to play in motivating, facilitating and shifting norms by offering integrated solutions.

Given the benefits of early sharing, and the recognition of the enormous pressures and challenges confronting researchers, we see our role as publisher to be one of active engagement and collaboration to better enable and support authors in openly share their work to support discussion and the growth of open research – and make it simple for them to do so. We continue to work collaboratively to take action and are committed to working with researchers through solutions such as In Review and continue to develop a suite of research solutions to better support a more open workflow.

With many thanks to Greg Goodey, senior research analyst, Springer Nature, for survey and analysis. If you are interested in additional data from the survey, or wish to discuss any of it further please contact katie.baker@springernature.com

Other key findings from the survey showed: 

  • Senior researchers, particularly those within the physical sciences, are most likely to post a preprint;

  • The highest percentage of preprint sharing is currently coming from North America and Europe (59 per cent/ 53 per cent respectively); and

  • 73 per cent of early career researchers see preprints as a positive way forward for the publishing sector and development of research.

Sowmya Swaminathan is head of collaborations at Springer Nature