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Growing share for preprints

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Five organisations define, describe, and share their thoughts on a subject that has become something of a hot topic in recent times

Please tell us how you would define a preprint?

Tasha Mellins-Cohen, director of publishing, Microbiology Society: Preprints are a way for researchers to make their work available when they are ready for it to be seen – and reviewed – by people outside of their immediate research group. Authors have always shared early drafts of their work with colleagues so in a way, preprints as we understand them today are a new model for a very traditional phenomenon. Here's a link to an editorial I recently wrote about preprints: doi.org/10.1099/mgen.0.000259

Mirjam Curno, publishing director, Frontiers: A ‘preprint’ is a scholarly article posted in an openly accessible platform; namely, a specific repository or preprint server.  Typically, submissions occur either prior to, or alongside, peer review, although preprints are also used to share author versions of published articles, in which case they are already peer-reviewed. Clearly, preprints short-circuit the time to publication. On the other hand, however, it means they have not yet been subject to a rigorous peer review process which validates the paper before official publication.

Amye Kenall, VP of publishing and product, Research Square: A preprint is the author-submitted version of the manuscript before peer review.

Michael Foster, managing director for publications, IEEE: We define a preprint as a draft version of a scholarly or scientific article, the preliminary work by an author prior to formal peer review and publication in an archival journal or proceedings. Authors can now post these types of drafts to TechRxiv.org, a new preprint server for the global technology community developed by IEEE. Authors can post preprints to TechRxiv regardless of where they eventually intend to submit and publish their work. Think of TechRxiv.org as a collaborative hub that facilitates the rapid and open dissemination of early scientific findings in electrical engineering, computer science, and related technologies. 

 A preprint server such as TechRxiv.org enables researchers to share early results of their work ahead of formal peer review and publication and gain community feedback on a draft version of their research. We should note that all submissions to TechRxiv.org are screened prior to acceptance by a panel of experts, and although not peer reviewed, the documents are checked for plagiarism and inappropriate content. 

 Steph Macdonald, Sarah Sabir, Tim Koder, Pharmagenesis: Our Open Pharma team would define a preprint as public version of a research manuscript that has not been through formal peer review.

After a quiet start, the use of preprints has surged in the last few years. Why? 

Mellins-Cohen, Microbiology Society: I suspect that the biggest blocker to uptake of preprints was traditional publishers suggesting that a preprint counted as ‘prior publication’, which meant they would not review or publish preprinted articles. In the last few years most publishers have acknowledged that this view was not aligned with the changing models of scholarly communication and have started to embrace preprints. Other factors to the accelerating uptake of preprints are likely to include increasing awareness of preprints outside of the physics community, which has used and valued arXiv for decades, and the ease of setting up new preprint servers on commercial and not-for-profit platforms (e.g. OSF Preprints). 

Curno, Frontiers: Researchers increasingly recognise that there are benefits in being able to share their work quickly and disseminate it extensively via the preprint route. This can be either prior to publication, so results are disseminated rapidly alongside the potential to claim ‘first discovery’, or post-publication, which means authors can share their work more widely in case it was published in a subscription journal. Beyond that, the surge in preprints could also be because the research community now regards them as an additional channel through which to publish their work, alongside traditional journals.

Kenall, Research Square: In the past few years, preprints in the biomedical sciences have grown significantly. This is likely due to influence from a range of stakeholders. Funders have openly supported preprints or in some cases mandated deposition of a preprint at the time of journal submission. Organisations like ASAPbio have made tremendous efforts in driving researcher education around and visibility of preprints. In the sciences, bioinformaticians and genomics researchers have really led the way, with the need for early sharing in outbreak research being critical in quickly tackling the outbreak (for example with the recent coronavirus) and saving lives. A number of publishers have also updated their policies and now actively encourage their authors to post preprints. I think all of these things have dramatically driven the visibility around preprints. Still, it’s important to keep in mind they are still only representing 2.6 per cent of all published content in the biomedical sciences. We have a long way to go.  

Foster, IEEE: Preprint servers are just one part of an overall open science movement that strives to disseminate scientific and technical information as quickly and broadly as possible. Many authors want to share and make public the results of their work as soon as possible. With tools available to authors such as preprint servers, authors can now easily share their early research, receive community feedback on their work, and refine their research findings before they submit it to a peer reviewed journal. This may provide an author with a greater likelihood of having his or her article accepted upon submission to a scholarly journal, and could help accelerate the publishing process. 

 We have been asked – why did IEEE decide to develop a preprint server? Based on input from our authors, members, and the engineering community, we discovered a need for an openly accessible preprint server specialising in engineering and technology, and one that any researcher would feel comfortable contributing to regardless of their geographic location, affiliation, technical specialty, or even the ultimate intended publisher of the research. With IEEE’s vast global community of authors, members, and IEEE Xplore digital library users, we realised we were ideally positioned to address this challenge with the development of TechRxiv.org. And given our relationships in the scholarly publishing industry, our hope is that other publishers in these fields will eventually join this endeavour.

Macdonald, Sabir, Koder, Pharmagenesis: We see three major contributing factors. The first is a general movement away from the ‘Ingelfinger Rule’, a policy stating that research findings would not be considered for publication by a journal if it has been published elsewhere. Journal editors have since revisited this policy and along with greater understanding and awareness of preprints, have moved away from considering these as prior publications. Secondly, updates to policies across universities, journals and funders now include and encourage preprints in their applications and submissions. Finally, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of preprint servers available including servers for discipline-, country-, publisher- and funder-specific research, made possible by advances in server technology and institutional and philanthropic funding. Combined with platforms such as the Open Science Framework, which allows you to search the different servers for articles of interest, research becomes both available and discoverable, an advantage for many authors.

Why is there such a big discrepancy in the use of preprints between different disciplines?

Mellins-Cohen, Microbiology Society: The research lifecycle and research outputs themselves differ dramatically between disciplines. In the arts, humanities and social sciences, for example, the text written by an author is their research output: the precise choice of words and phrases matters. By contrast, while articles are important to researchers in the sciences (who need them to capture citations and aid with grant applications and career progression), their protocols, data and analyses are the critical research output. Scientists also seem to be much more focused on the issue of ‘priority’, and issuing a preprint allows them to claim priority even if their article then takes a long time to get through peer review (this is so well accepted that most funding bodies, including UKRI, Wellcome and the US National Institutes of Health, allow researchers to cite preprints in their grant applications). Against that background, it is easy to see why some sciences have embraced preprint servers more enthusiastically than some arts and humanities disciplines. 

Curno, Frontiers: Some disciplines, such as physics, have had a long history of working in larger collaborative efforts, such as CERN, for example. In an environment like this author credit is distributed across a large number of contributors and often reproducing data is a significant endeavour. Therefore, authors in these communities might perceive less risk of not being credited with the data generation. 

In other disciplines, such as medicine for example, there has been hesitation about making non-peer-reviewed results accessible due to the potential consequences of using unverified findings for treatment purposes. Preprints offering unverified insights into the coronavirus are a good example of how this could be problematic, particularly at a time when people are rushing to deliver solutions.

Kenall, Research Square: As mentioned earlier, there is a particular urgency in some fields, such as in outbreak related research. The cultures of different fields differ quite a bit, as do the journal policies in these fields. Funders in some fields have been more supportive of preprints than others as well. Gates and Wellcome both mandate deposition of preprints during public health emergencies. Biomedical funders like the NIH also encourage the use of preprints on grant applications. 

Macdonald, Sabir, Koder, Pharmagenesis: While researchers in engineering and physical sciences have been engaging with preprints for almost two decades, their uptake has been slower in other disciplines – most notably in clinical research. In addition to the universal risk of research being ‘scooped’, many medical researchers remain concerned over the potential risks to public health in publishing research that has not undergone formal peer review. As preprints are available open access, there a risk of unvetted information being misinterpreted and misunderstood by healthcare professionals and the general public alike. Beyond the risk for medical science generally, the pharma industry must also take care to avoid any sense of promoting off-label use of medicines. The dissemination of so-called ‘bad science’ also poses a risk to the public’s trust in medical research, a concern for academia and pharma alike.

How do preprints benefit the research community?

Mellins-Cohen, Microbiology Society: I’ve already mentioned that preprints allow authors to establish priority for the work they have done by providing a public record: that gives the authors credit and allows them to accrue citations to their work even before formal publication. Then there is the increased visibility: preprints are open access by their nature, meaning that they are easy for other researchers to find and cite as well as being available more rapidly than traditional publication routes. Lastly, preprints can supplement traditional peer review by allowing a wide circle of peers to discover the work and contact the author with suggestions for improvements that might be made before the final version is published.

Curno, Frontiers: There are benefits to preprints; wider and more rapid dissemination of results, and easier and unrestricted access, for example. Once published in preprint, authors may receive feedback from a wider circle beyond what they might expect during peer review, although the quality of this feedback cannot, of course, be guaranteed. From an editors’ perspective, preprints offer an opportunity to scout for new work of interest to their respective fields and invite submissions to their journal. A number of journals have partnerships with preprints. Our platform at Frontiers, for example, allows authors to easily submit papers from bioRxiv or medRxiv straight to our system for peer review. 

Kenall, Research Square: First and foremost, they present an opportunity to make research better. Research has become increasingly multidisciplinary and more niche. Two reviewers rarely can do the job of thoroughly validating a research article. Making one’s submitted manuscript available from the start of (preferably before) the peer review process opens the door to feedback from a wider range of researchers. Having worked in the publishing industry, I’m also well aware of the difficulty of finding reviewers. The reader comes to the article not because an editor has asked him or her to but because he/she is genuinely interested in the research. Surely this is an excellent person to provide feedback on the manuscript? Of course, they also allow researchers to share their findings immediately, without waiting an average of 150 days in peer review. Peer review is extremely valuable in validating research, but it takes time. In some cases, an author might need to share their work early for practical reasons – to cite on a grant application, eg. But in cases of international public health emergencies, research cannot wait 150 days. It’s important we have a mechanism for immediate sharing.

Macdonald, Sabir, Koder, Pharmagenesis: With the current publication process being notably slow, the most obvious benefit of preprints to the research community is the early and rapid dissemination of research results, thereby accelerating scientific advances. As demonstrated by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, it is clear that the broader access to scientific research through preprints has allowed the scientific community to work collaboratively to combat the virus, minimising repetitive research efforts and improving patient care. Preprint servers allow research to be shared widely, and open licences allow researchers from across the world access to the latest advances, which in turn allows for more constructive feedback and even increased citations. In studies where research is time-sensitive or in areas where there is a lot of competition, it allows researchers a way to ‘time-stamp’ their research as soon as it has been discovered.  

What are the biggest challenges for publishers around the rise in preprints?

Mellins-Cohen, Microbiology Society: There’s the easy answer, that publishers of journals who refuse to consider preprinted articles are cutting themselves off from the next generation of researchers. And then there’s the hard answer, which is that preprints are the leading edge of a desire to publish differently, and if we don’t listen to our communities and engage with those desires, publishers risk becoming increasingly irrelevant. Here's a link to a recent editorial I wrote about preprints: 

Curno, Frontiers: Publishers have to decide whether to see pre-prints as prior publications and whether in principal, they will publish research that is already in the public domain. The decision they take may also depend on which copyright terms the preprint was published under; there may be a conflict between the publisher’s license and that of the preprint platform. Similarly, some journals have banned submissions based on preprints in order to discourage this practise based on their perception of risk to patients. Beyond that, there are challenges about linking articles to pre-prints to collate impact data such as citations, and how to deal with preprints if an article is retracted. A particularly interesting challenge for publishers is whether and how they are implicated in managing the potentially negative impact research published in pre-prints could have if taken out of context. The research community is aware the findings are unvalidated, but is the wider population, including the media? If findings where misinterpreted, or mistakenly used to inform government policy for example, the validity and reputation of all research could be questioned. 

Kenall, Research Square: I don’t see these two ecosystems as at odds. Indeed, I think they work in collaboration. Peer review through a journal provides a method of validation (albeit not a perfect one) and a valuable level of curation in our world of information overload. The challenge will be in the ability to work together to ease the user journey for the author and in ensuring there is no duplication of resources. 

Foster, IEEE: I would restate this as an opportunity for publishers in a few ways. 1) to invite more authors from around the world into the process, 2) to receive more submissions from authors who are in the early stages of their careers, 3) to help raise awareness of an author’s work as early as possible, 4) to help expedite the peer review and publishing process for scholarly journals with more polished submissions, and 5) to make the lifecycle of research communications richer and more transparent. 

This is made possible through the addition of data, code, and other research artifacts to the archival records, and through machine-linking of the various different versions of articles, e.g. conference proceeding, preprint, and the archival journal version of record. 

Macdonald, Sabir, Koder, Pharmagenesis: Preprints not only provide researchers with a faster route of communication than traditional peer-reviewed publication, but also offer an alternative route to open access without the associated article processing costs. As preprints become more popular some authors may opt not to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals at all. Publishers will have to adapt in order to retain article submissions, demonstrating the value added by their peer review, editorial and other publishing processes, and providing authors with viable open access routes.

Where do we go from here? What will the preprints landscape look like in 10 years’ time?

Mellins-Cohen, Microbiology Society: Let me go find my crystal ball… At a guess, we’ll see some consolidation of existing niche preprint servers into larger disciplinary servers, as well as the launch of additional disciplinary and institutional servers for specific communities, but also a proliferation of services built on top of preprint servers. 

Curno, Frontiers: This may depend on the transition to open access and more technology-driven publishing services, which could speed up publication. Either of these could make preprints redundant as they would undermine its main benefit; rapid and unrestricted dissemination. On the other hand, if there is a clear shift in researcher evaluation (some funders allow preprints to be used in grant applications) and a de-emphasis on peer review as a validation method, it is possible preprints may become more prominent. However, like other well established and long-running industries, publishing moves relatively slowly. It could be that 10 years is too short a timeframe for any significant change to occur in the preprint landscape. There are a number of areas that preprints do need to address to become more prominent. For example: impact data reconciliation, quality control, and AI-ready formats to enable enhanced text and data-mining in the future.

Kenall, Research Square: I don’t see these two ecosystems as at odds. Indeed, I think they work in collaboration. Peer review through a journal provides a method of validation (albeit not a perfect one) and a valuable level of curation in our world of information overload. The challenge will be in the ability to work together to ease the user journey for the author and in ensuring there is no duplication of resources.

Foster, IEEE: I think the open science movement overall will continue to accelerate as more information will be available faster and more broadly than ever before – and that encompasses preprints, data, code, as well as the final peer reviewed articles. IEEE strives to continue to support the varying needs of all of our authors and the scientific community by providing and developing the resources needed to continue to drive global innovation now and in the future.

Macdonald, Sabir, Koder, Pharmagenesis: As the demand for timely access to research outputs grows so will the scholarly community’s engagement with preprints. The clear benefits of preprints in response to public health crises have again been demonstrated in the COVID-19 outbreak. When an inflammatory article suggesting that COVID-19 was engineered by humans was posted to bioRxiv, the scientific community rallied together and the article was quickly withdrawn, demonstrating that even when ‘bad science’ is made public, there are clear steps in place to contain any potential damage. It will be interesting to see whether the use of preprint servers, such as bioRxiv and medRxiv, continues after the COVID-19 crisis is over.  

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