The Rise of Preprints

bioRxivThere has been a host of media coverage on the growth of preprints in scholarly communications recently. The continuing adoption of bioRxiv a preprint server for biology has been reported in mainstream media, in The New York Times and Wired as well as scholarly journals (Nature).


Preprint servers are, of course, not new.  arXiv has served the the physical sciences and mathematics for the best part of 20 years.  In fact arXiv is the most popular repository of scholarly papers in the world with well over a million papers freely available.

So what to make of it?  Will bioRxiv succesfully follow in the tracks of arXiv? Firstly let’s define the practice.

A preprint is a research paper that is posted to a server before it has been submitted for publication to a journal.  As such it has not gone through formal peer review, or been type set, copy edited or any other of the services offered by traditional publishing.

The preprint is posted for good reasons:

  • Speed.  A preprint is posted online immediately once research has been conducted, getting results out to the research community immediately without having to wait for a publisher to arrange peer review and conduct other publisher add on services.  Research papers posted on preprint servers are more likely to benefit from early citations.
  • Instant peer review. A preprint can garner a mass of comments and feedback that traditional closed peer review cannot match.  These comments can be incorporated into the final version of the paper that is finally published in a journal.

And that raises an important point… does posting preprints undermine the traditional process of publishing in a journal.  Spotting a good story most of the news outlets focus on this, the headlines say it all: Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet (NY Times) and A Rainbow Unicorn Wants to Transform Biology Publishing (wired).

Some researchers may well feel this.  Frustrated with the time delays between submission and final publication, and with potentially little actually being gained by the peer review process. And why, in a networked world, should scholarly communications remain in thrall to academic journals?

One scenario is that if scholarly communications are freely available on preprint servers then what is the requirement for costly subscriptions to academic journals? And (so it goes) traditional publishers may choose to restrict the preprint culture by refusing to accept papers that have already been disseminated by the preprint route.

However, that is not the only scenario, as one commentator points out “It’s not beer or tacos, it’s beer AND tacos.” Posting preprints provides the key benefits of quick dissemination and instant feedback whilst the journal provides add on publication services (type setting and copy editing) and a final published version with whatever prestige is associated with that particular journal.

There remain other concerns with preprints.

  • Early Career Researchers may be more dependent on gaining prestige and reputation than established researchers and so are more likely to seek publication in established journals that may not allow preprints.
  • Should you cite preprints (when there is no currently no final published version to cite, or even, if the final version turns out to be substantially different to the preprint version). The answer is, yes, cite the preprints you use, albeit this means a citation count is likely to be distributed across different versions of a research paper.
  • Having your research scooped (either in it’s entirety or in having it used to improve a competitor’s research) is a foreboding concern.  And as such will be a central plank of those that will advocate against preprints.  The Selfish scientists Guide to Preprint Posting suggests posting at point of submission to the journal “At this point, the risk of being scooped is small, while the benefits of preprint precedence and early citation are still substantial.”

rainbow unicorn

So there is some way to go before the rainbow unicorn sings.

However, if preprints work in the biological sciences where might it spread next?  Which disciplines might follow suit?

And what role might existing institutional repositories have in disseminating preprints?

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