5 common concerns about publishing preprints

Have you ever asked yourself this question: Should I publish my manuscript as a preprint? You’re not alone! Preprints are becoming increasingly popular in more and more fields. But you may have objections holding you back. In this blog post, I’m taking a closer look at five common questions about uploading your paper on a preprint server. This is the first part of a 3-part series on preprints. In the next episodes, I’ll summarise the benefits of preprints and give you some tips on preparing one.

 

I recently polled Twitter asking whether scientists publish preprints, and in case they weren’t whether they are considering doing so. It turns out that of the 186 people who answered the survey, about one third submits papers as preprints, of which more than one third publishes every article as a preprint. 12% of the respondents do not plan on uploading preprints at all. However, the biggest fraction of people, 54%, are considering preprints but have no prior experience with them.

A preprint is a version of a scientific article published before peer-review. It is usually not edited and type-set and available for free. Scientists can upload preprints on several different servers – one of the most famous ones probably being arXiv, a platform for scientific articles on physics, mathematics, computer science and related fields. The platform has been around since 1991 and was recently joined by similar services for other disciplines, such as bioRxiv in 2013 and chemRxiv and EarthArXiv in 2017. Other preprint platforms include PeerJ PrePrints and Preprints.org.

Preprint servers are not just becoming more plentiful, an increasing number of scientists are also choosing to publish preprints. While in 2014 less than 4000 authors published their work on bioRxiv, the number rose to 80,000 in 2018 – that’s 20 times more in only four years!

At the same time, people are downloading more and more preprints. In fact, the number of downloads of your preprint can be an indicator for the type of journal it will eventually appear in: Researchers found that the more downloads a preprint on bioRxiv receives, the higher the impact factor of the journal tends to be that it ends up being published in.

If you are in the 54% chunk of my Twitter poll results – meaning you are considering publishing a preprint – you likely have some concerns about uploading your study to the internet before it has undergone peer-review. So, let’s take a closer look at some common objections to preprints! 

 

Concern #1: Does my target journal allow publishing preprints before submission?

Nowadays, most journals and publisher allow posting of preprints. Just recently, in May 2019, Springer Nature unified and clarified the preprint policies of all their journals stating that publishing of preprints is permitted, even under Creative Commons Licences.

There are, however, some exceptions. If you plan to submit your articles to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), journals housed by the Institute of Physics (IOP Publishing) or the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Network), publishing a preprint may be less straightforward. Although none of these publishers ban preprints from submission, they either have restrictions in place or their policies aren’t entirely clear. For example, IOP Publishing will generally consider preprints but not if they have been published under a Creative Commons Licence. NEJM does not specify their stance on preprints in their journal policy but a spokesperson of the journal has indicated that the priority for publication may be affected if the work has received “substantial publicity […] before or during peer-review”.

Generally, journals have different requirements about what information you have to provide, e.g. where and when the preprint has been published. Journal policies can also vary in terms of whether it is allowed to update a preprint after revising the manuscript based on the peer-review.

Because of the many variations in journal policies, it is essential to check the policy of your target journal carefully. An overview of the preprint policies of lots of scientific journals can be found in this Wikipedia article. If you are unsure about what is allowed and required, I recommend reaching out to the publisher and ask for clarification before risking a rejection or retraction based on breaching preprint policies.

 

Concern #2: Does it take more time to publish preprint? 

Publishing a paper is a time-consuming undertaking. After data collection and analysis, you need to write, edit and format the paper, compose a cover letter to the editor, look for referees and often fight with a technologically outdated submission system. If your manuscript isn’t instantly rejected, there’s more work waiting for you after the reviewers’ assessment.

So, adding uploading a preprint to the list, may not seem enticing. The short answer to the question of whether publishing a preprint takes more time is: yes. Some tasks that you need to add to your list are: checking and clarifying journal policies, registering with a preprint platform and uploading your manuscript.

More crucially, after posting the manuscript, you may receive comments from other researchers on your work (see concern #3). These may be so valuable that you will want to revise your manuscript before sending it to your target journal. Although this really is one of the benefits of preprints, this may delay publishing and takes some extra effort, so it’s good to be aware and plan accordingly.

 

Concern #3: What if I receive negative comments on my paper?

Because of the greater exposure preprints receive (more on this in part 2 of this mini-series), publishing a preprint means that you are more likely to receive comments on your work. This can happen either publicly on the preprint platform or social media or privately via email. And truth is, these comments may, on occasion, sting.

And just as with any negative feedback we may receive, I believe the wisest approach is to put the critical words aside for a while. When you read through the comments again a few hours later or even the next day, it may already not seem as negatively as on first impression. You can then judge whether the feedback is valid and if it is, you’ll probably be happy and grateful about it.

Receiving comments on your preprints is like a pre-peer-review, which can result in that you end up publishing a study of higher quality than you would otherwise have. and you will have the chance to improve your study before sending it out to the journal.

Apart from the risk of egos being hurt, it is possible that any public comments that you receive on your preprint are being taken into account when your manuscript is under peer-review. It appears again that journal policies on this point are unclear. Regardless of whether the comments on your preprint can officially be considered in the peer review process, it will be hard for a reviewer or editor to “unsee” any opinion they have read about your study. So this is certainly something one should be aware of.

 

 
 

Concern #4: What if someone else scoops my research idea and publishes ahead of me?

Scooping means that another research group steals an idea from the preprint and publishes a similar study in a peer-reviewed journal before you do. Many researchers, especially in the medical and life sciences, are concerned about this. Proponents of preprints, however, argue that you receive a DOI when your article is accepted on the preprint server, and that there is permanent and public record of the publication of your scientific contribution including a timestamp.

Paul Ginsberg, the creator of arXiv, suggests that stealing research ideas or information from preprints is not an issue if preprints are common standard in a scientific community – as they are, for example, in physics. This way, editors and peer-reviewers are aware of the true owner of the work and “no one can plausibly claim that they ‘did not see it’”, writes Ginsberg in a commentary in the EMBO journal.

EMBO press, a publisher of several life science journals, has even implemented a scooping protection from the day your manuscript appears on a preprint server. This means that in the time frame between publishing the preprint and the peer-reviewed paper, EMBO press does not consider manuscripts from other authors reporting on similar findings as a criterion for rejection.

 

Concern #5: Doesn’t publishing preprints make it harder for scientists and the public to distinguish between high- and low-quality research?

Both scientists and journalists usually pay attention to the journal a study is published in. Often higher journal impact factors are regarded as indicators for higher quality work. Simply the fact that a paper has undergone peer-review is often seen as a criterion for quality.

With preprints that are published without assessment by other experts, there is a risk of weak studies receiving disproportionate attention. Tom Sheldon, a press manager at the Science Media Center – an organisation that supplies science journalists with expert information on current hot topics – fears that weak preprints could get overblown in the media while good work might get ignored. This may lead to misinforming and confusing the public, Sheldon argues.

When a significant study is published the traditional way, journalists are usually able to access the paper and an accompanying press release a few days ahead of publication. This gives them time to do their research, interview experts and write an informed news item.

With preprints, Sheldon worries, journalists may rush to be the first to write about an exciting finding, potentially misleading the public. Indeed, most papers receive more attention after being published as a preprint rather than after they have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. 

To lower the risk for publication of pseudoscience, medRxiv, a preprint server in the field of health sciences – a discipline where hypes around false findings may have serious consequences – has implemented a somewhat tighter screening process than other preprint platforms.

I do believe that Sheldon’s concerns are valid. Preprints may simply not be the right place for all studies.

Another important piece of the puzzle is to educate the public about the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed articles. Also, when referring to scientific findings both journalists and scientists should specify whether these have been published as a preprint or peer-reviewed paper.

There you have it: Five common concerns about publishing preprints. Despite these downsides, publishing a preprint comes with a lot of advantages for scientists, scientific communities and science in general. We’ll discuss these benefits in part 2 of this mini-series of preprints – stay tuned!

What are your experiences with preprints? If you have never published one, are you inclined to do so? If not, what are your objections? I’d love to know, please post a comment below!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Anna Clemens blogs about scientific writing

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and structurally edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably hiking with my dog and assistant Zuza or enjoying an oat flat white in one of Prague’s many cosy cafés.

I’d love to connect with you on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite).