PREPRINTS: WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
Preprints and working papers have been posted and shared for many years. They report research results that have not undergone peer review, although in many cases the authors also submit to a journal (before, after or at the same time as making a preprint available). In the past 5 years, the number of preprint servers and preprints has expanded and new disciplines, notably biology and life sciences, have seen rapid growth in the number of preprints. Preprints appear in a number of contexts, including dedicated preprint servers (of which arXiv is by far the largest), social media and networking sites (e.g. Researchgate), and institutional repositories. Standards, pre-online checks and policies vary between platforms and there are currently no established standards, although ASAPbio will convene a meeting in July in which the establishment of standards will be among the issues discussed.
To date there have been few public discussions around the ethics of making unverified research available in this way and there are a number of issues that arise. Not all ethical issues around preprints have a link with journal articles and COPE may wish to consider ‘mission creep’ and whether all aspects of preprints ethics fall within its remit.
A few important issues for COPE to discuss are the following:
Citation – Can and should a preprint establish precedence for reporting research results? Should authors of journal articles be expected to include relevant preprints when reviewing the literature? Preprints are typically not included in regular indexing services, so are less visible than journal articles and more likely to be overlooked by authors.
Withdrawal/retraction and correction/updating preprints – Under what circumstances should a preprint be retracted or updated and whose responsibility is it to make such a decision, given that there is typically no expert editor associated with a preprint? If a journal version of a preprint is retracted, should the preprint also be removed or marked in some way? If a preprint is withdrawn should a reason for the removal be given? Since they have not been peer reviewed, preprints should be used with care by readers, however it is not clear whether there is a threshold at which leaving an inaccurate preprint online could be considered damaging and misleading.
Ethical approval – Could authors take advantage of preprint servers that have minimal checks to circumvent ethical requirements, e.g. for clinical trials? What recommendations can be made to those running preprint servers regarding ethical policies?
Journal editors – Many journals will consider papers that have been posted as preprints, although some do not have a clear policy. Are there any special considerations for papers that have already appeared as a preprint? For example:
• Consideration of online comments/reviews especially where they identify weaknesses of the paper;
• Verification that a previously posted version of a paper has not been peer reviewed;
• Whether to consider a submitted paper that reports results already included in a preprint with different authors.
ASAPbio Draft statement 2: journal policies regarding pre-posting of articles: http://asapbio.org/drafts/draft2.
Retraction/removal policies from several preprint servers:
- ArXiv https://arxiv.org/help/withdraw
- BiorXiv http://www.biorxiv.org/about/FAQ
- PeerJ Preprints https://peerj.com/about/preprints/policies-and-procedures/#retraction-policy
- Preprints.org https://www.preprints.org/instructions_for_authors#withdrawal
This will be discussed at the start of the next COPE Forum on Monday 24 July 2017. Please do leave any comments below, whether or not you are planning on joining the meeting
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