Why preprint review is the way forward

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Damian Pattinson and Emily Packer

As preprints shake up the science publishing landscape, Damian Pattinson and Emily Packer reflect on efforts to embrace new models of review and curation

Preprints remain a hot topic of conversation among the scientific and publishing communities, following their recent and rapid rise in popularity. While the trend goes back a few years, the Covid-19 pandemic certainly played its part in highlighting the importance of sharing new findings as quickly and openly as possible. Now, with the ongoing adoption of preprints among researchers, particularly within the life sciences and medicine, as well as a wider movement to advance open and equitable science, it is clear that preprints are here to stay – and that is good news for everyone.

Preprint pros and cons – and opportunities

Since its inception, the science publishing system has seen very few meaningful changes. It remains slow and frustrating for authors, it takes away their power over the publication of their own work, and it is wasteful, with valuable time spent on peer reviews lost to both authors and readers if a paper gets rejected. On top of this, it puts greater emphasis on where authors publish their work, rather than what they publish.

But along came preprints, providing the foundations for a new process that can counter some of these problems. Preprints bring many benefits to scientists and, by extension, to science overall. They give more control to authors by allowing them to share their findings publicly as soon as they are ready. Readers can then access new studies on topics of interest to them, while other researchers can reuse and build on the findings for their own work.

However their growth in popularity has also highlighted a lack of systems of review around preprints that mean readers cannot easily assess the quality of new findings. This is the great opportunity for the future of research communication – bringing expert peer review and curation to the preprint literature.

A number of organisations are now doing just that, by embracing models that combine the speed and openness of preprints with expert peer review, full publication and curation. Some of them – eLife and Biophysics Colab, for example – are working with a shared vision in mind: a publishing ecosystem in which the significance of research is recognised on its own merits and independently of journal title. Some other models – including those used by PREreview and ASAPbio–SciELO Preprints crowd review – also take advantage of the open nature of preprints to enable researchers from groups traditionally underrepresented in science to participate in public review.

A few examples of these organisations and their respective models are described below. Together they represent significant community efforts to bring review and curation to preprints, and show how alternative models could work in a more open future for research.

Preprint review and curation models

First of all, if we were to reimagine the current publishing system, which features would need to change? This was a question we asked ourselves at eLife, and we landed on a number of criteria – not least that it should be fairer, faster and more transparent for authors. In January this year, we launched our new publishing model that aims to achieve just that. This model ends the accept/reject decision after peer review; instead, all preprints that we peer review are published on the eLife website as a Reviewed Preprint, accompanied by an eLife assessment and the public reviews. The eLife assessments use a common vocabulary for consistency that covers the significance of the findings and the strength of the evidence. Authors are able to include a response to the assessment and reviews if they wish to do so – the choice is theirs.

eLife’s new model forms part of our overarching ‘publish, review, curate’ mission, which also includes Sciety – a journal-agnostic platform that aggregates reviewed preprints from across the web. As a way of helping readers navigate the growing preprint landscape, groups that provide peer-review services can join and curate papers of interest to their communities on Sciety. What’s exciting about Sciety is that it allows, for the first time, for multiple organisations to endorse the same preprint, creating an ecosystem where review and curation is performed by many groups, not just a single journal.

Both Sciety and eLife’s new model play key roles in what we see as the future for research communication: a diverse, global community of scientists producing open and trusted results for the benefit of all. Our announcement about the new model, and the model in practice, have led to ongoing and vibrant discussions among the scientific and publishing communities, but we have been pleased with the overall response. Since switching to the model in January, we have seen strong submissions and positive feedback from authors. We have also received support from funders and institutions who want to see changes to the evaluation system to make it less dependent on journal titles and impact factors.

eLife is not the only organisation to adopt a flavour of the ‘publish, review, curate’ model. Biophysics Colab – an international collaboration of biophysicists working to improve the way original research is evaluated – also announced its shift to a full version of the model in February this year. Having run a preprint review trial since 2019, Biophysics Colab is now building upon this service and will soon be giving authors the option to create a final ‘version of record’ – equivalent to a journal article – after peer review of their preprint.

Another group that provides peer-review services is the National Coronavirus Research Compendium (NCRC) – a publicly available resource from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, US, that rapidly curates and reviews emerging scientific evidence about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. The faculty, fellows, alumni and students behind the NCRC select research for public health action and assign teams of experts to review and summarise the key findings of the papers. The NCRC now has a dedicated section on Sciety that readers can use as a landing page to find the Compendium’s preprint reviews and keep up to date with its latest evaluations.

A last example is ASAPbio–SciELO Preprints crowd review. This Brazil-based group reviews preprints relating to infectious disease research, posted on the SciELO Preprints server in Brazilian Portuguese. The SciELO Preprints server is an integral part of SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online), a bibliographic database, digital library and cooperative electronic publishing model of open-access journals. In 2022, SciELO Preprints became a collaborator in ASAPbio’s crowd preprint review, an initiative to help foster public feedback on research posted as preprints. Public reviews contributed by SciELO Preprints and other collaborators in this initiative are also available on Sciety.

These are just some examples of the range of organisations offering preprint review and curation services, some of which plan to expand to even more communities of researchers and readers in the future. Just looking at the more positive community response to eLife’s new model alone suggests that this is the way forward for research and research communication, and as such we can expect similar models to be adopted more widely over time.

So, what happens next?

As we have seen, however, change will not happen overnight despite calls from the community for more openness and transparency in research communication. eLife and others are working to provide alternative models to one that is well established and deeply embedded in research culture and assessment, and there are still significant challenges to overcome. For example, there are still concerns that publishing in high impact factor journals is necessary for researchers to be considered for funding and job opportunities. While this is indicative of the ongoing need for improvements in research culture more broadly, publishers still have their part to play – and collaboration will be key here.

This is why we continue to add groups to Sciety to showcase what they are doing in terms of reviewing preprints, and why we also welcome ongoing conversations about our new publishing model and research communication more generally. If a global community of researchers, publishers, funders, research organisations and other industry players can come together and discuss new ways of approaching research communication and assessment, we could soon see a more open future that better serves science and scientists.

Damian Pattinson is eLife Executive Director; Emily Packer is eLife Media Relations Manager. eLife is an independent nonprofit committed to improving the way research is reviewed and communicated.