Preprints: opportunity or challenge?

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This article was jointly written by Andrea Chiarelli (pictured), Juliane Kant and Birgit Schmidt on behalf of Knowledge Exchange. Andrea Chiarelli is a consultant at Research Consulting. Juliane Kant is partner representative for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) in Knowledge Exchange. Birgit Schmidt is head of knowledge commons at Göttingen State and University Library.

Active engagement and collaboration are needed to deliver the promise of preprints, writes Andrea Chiarelli

The preprints landscape is evolving fast. After the first preprint servers were launched by physicists and economists in the early 1990s, the field remained dormant in most other disciplines until about 2013. From that point onwards, we have seen an unexpected surge in the number of preprint servers available for researchers to post, read and comment on articles in pre-refereed form.

Knowledge Exchange (a group of national organisations from six European countries tasked with developing digital infrastructure and services to improve research and higher education) has been investigating preprints since 2018. An introductory report was followed by an extensive consultation with almost 40 international stakeholders from Europe and North America. In this context, we interviewed researchers and representatives of research performing organisations, research funders, preprint servers and service providers. This work fed into a preprint entitled 'Preprints and Scholarly Communication: Adoption, Practices, Drivers and Barriers' and will be developed into a full Knowledge Exchange report in the autumn.

Before we delve further into the discussion, let us highlight one of the biggest challenges we encountered when analysing the preprints landscape: definitions. We started our journey using a definition we felt most would share, i.e. that a preprint is a version of a research paper typically prior to peer review and publication in a journal. However, our research soon showed that disciplinary communities have different views on what a preprint is and the value it carries in practice.

Throughout the course of our work, we were reminded that the importance of disciplines goes beyond definitions. Accepted norms and behaviours within a community, from the research group to the international level, are what really make the difference when it comes to the uptake of preprints.

Preprints are already broadly accepted and widespread in the physics and mathematics communities, as are working papers in economics. On the other hand, their role in biology, chemistry or psychology is rapidly developing, albeit from a low base. Meanwhile, in many fields of the humanities monographs and edited volumes are the dominant mode of scholarly discourse. Open access monographs are gaining ground, but our work suggests that a preprint culture has yet to emerge in these disciplines.

Regardless of disciplinary differences, the various stakeholders in the scholarly communication landscape seem to agree that the key benefit of preprint posting is that it enables easy and fast dissemination. Openness is also an important driver, as preprints are typically freely available online for anyone to access and read. Some argue that sharing preprints online also allows authors to receive early feedback on their work: while this is true in principle, our research indicates that commenting via preprint servers is not common (and not always technically possible), at least for the time being.

On the other hand, a possible issue when it comes to preprint posting is the lack of quality assurance. Preprints are typically posted by authors prior to peer review, which may lead to concerns when reusing them: some are worried that negligent scientists and/or reporters could publish and share incorrect or imprecise work. However, we found that people expect professional and ethical behaviours in higher education and science reporting: the concept of trust was mentioned several times during our interviews, and this is implemented in practice for example by clearly labelling preprints as such using document headers. In addition, we note that there is a high risk of reputational damage for all involved when poor-quality work is shared broadly and advertised. Therefore, the extent to which the lack of peer-review and the sharing of incorrect results will materialise is likely to be limited.

A practical concern for researchers that requires further clarification is the so-called 'Ingelfinger rule'. According to this principle, research that has already been published in some form (in this case, as a preprint) would not be considered suitable for formal publication in a journal. As a result, some researchers are legitimately concerned that posting preprints will prevent them from publishing their work in their journal of choice. This might limit the uptake of preprint posting, even if, in reality, a growing range of journals (including from top publishers) have stated that the practice is acceptable to them.

Infrastructures for posting preprints appear to be largely in place today. In our work, we have identified three main models that allow researchers to share their work in preprint form: (i) standalone preprint servers using proprietary technologies (e.g., bioRxiv, arXiv); (ii) standalone preprint servers using third-party technologies (e.g., ChemRxiv using Figshare and other servers using the Open Science Framework); and (iii) publishing workflows including the public release of articles prior to peer review (e.g., PeerJ, F1000Research).

The main question arising from the choice of technological solutions is whether preprint posting will further evolve as a researcher- or publisher-centric practice.

The former approach is likely to conform to open scholarship principles and would help prevent excessive market consolidation in scholarly publishing. It would, however, likely lead to partial coverage, as only a subset of researchers globally would engage with the practice. A publisher-centric approach would enable smoother and simpler workflows, and, potentially, could lead to a scenario where all articles submitted are also made available in preprint form: journals already have authors’ manuscripts, which means they could make them public in a more structured way.

An important difference between the above pathways to preprint posting is where responsibility rests: a researcher-centric approach would tend to be based on shared technical infrastructure and non-profit business models. It would also lead to community ownership as opposed to handing the reins of preprint posting to academic publishers, which are perceived by some as holding too much power in the scholarly communication landscape. A third view, perhaps somewhere between the others, could see publishers submitting research in preprint form to community-governed preprint servers: this is what PLOS is currently doing by submitting preprints to bioRxiv. Integrating publishing workflows with preprint servers at scale would be challenging, but it would include some of the benefits of both models, researcher- and publisher-centric.

A key finding of Knowledge Exchange’s research is the enabling role played by social media and Twitter in particular. Twitter was found to be the main pathway for people to discover preprints in the first place, and it is used to share and comment on them, among other things. This in turn highlights the relevance of social media metrics, as these can be used to track discussions and engagement via a preprint’s DOI which could otherwise be lost.

The preprints landscape keeps evolving and is characterised by widespread experimentation. This is not to be seen as a weakness, but rather as evidence of the transformative role that preprints could play in scholarly communication. To date, preprints have been acknowledged by some research funders as evidence for research achievements (e.g. National Institutes of Health, Zuckerberg Foundation, Wellcome Trust, European Research Council) and are also mentioned in the evolving guidance for the implementation of Plan S.

In sum, we believe that preprints present a great opportunity to enhance open scholarship. However, their potential can be delivered in practice only if the various stakeholders involved are actively engaged and collaborate towards a shared vision. As far back as 2003, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities described the internet as an emerging medium for knowledge dissemination and stated that it would 'significantly modify the nature of scientific publishing as well as the existing system of quality assurance'.

Although there is ample room for further transformation, the growing adoption of preprints represents a practical demonstration of this principle.

This article was jointly written by Andrea Chiarelli, Juliane Kant and Birgit Schmidt on behalf of Knowledge Exchange. Andrea Chiarelli is a consultant at Research Consulting. Juliane Kant is partner representative for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) in Knowledge Exchange. Birgit Schmidt is head of knowledge commons at Göttingen State and University Library.

Chiarelli, A., Johnson, R., Pinfield, S. & Richens, E. (2019). F1000Research (preprint). Preprints and Scholarly Communication: Adoption, Practices, Drivers and Barriers.
Chiarelli, A., Johnson, R., Pinfield, S. & Richens, E. (2019). Zenodo. Practices, drivers and impediments in the use of preprints.