A preprint is a scholarly manuscript posted by the author(s) in an openly accessible platform, usually before or in parallel with the peer review process. While the sharing of manuscripts via preprint platforms has been common in some disciplines (such as physics and mathematics) for many years, uptake in other disciplines traditionally had been low, possibly influenced by differences in research culture and strong opposition by some journal publishers.
Why Use Preprints?
Preprint servers provide researchers with a platform to disseminate their work quickly and broadly, in a shorter timeframe than that needed at a peer-reviewed journal. Researchers can establish precedence and may be able to obtain feedback before (or, sometimes, in parallel with) peer review at a journal and from a wider audience than the two or three reviewers traditionally involved in reviewing manuscripts. The availability of preprints can also facilitate interactions between researchers working on similar areas or projects, and may help foster collaboration between groups. Some funders allow inclusion of preprints in grant applications and thus, posting work as a preprint can help authors to provide evidence of research productivity. Preprint platforms do not currently incur submission fees and, thus, provide a free service to both authors and readers. The long-term sustainability of this business model is an open question, although some feel that the operational costs can be offset via grants and partnerships with other parties. Some preprint platforms provide features where readers can publicly log comments, critiques and suggestions. Even if commenting features are not available, readers can contact the researchers directly. Authors may then use the feedback from the preprint posting to revise their manuscript before submission to a journal, or in addition to the reviewer comments from traditional peer review. From an editor’s perspective, preprint platforms can also provide opportunities to scout upcoming work and invite the submission of suitable manuscripts to their journal. Preprint servers and journals may also enter partnerships to facilitate easy submission of preprint papers to a participating journal; bioRxiv is a recent example of a preprint server entering such a scheme with some journals to facilitate the direct transfer of papers posted as a preprint on their server.
Some researchers fear that their work may be ‘scooped’ if they post manuscripts to a preprint platform, but the prevalence of intentional ‘scooping’ and whether or not it differs from situations that arise during journal peer review is unclear. Another important element for consideration relates to the licensing of the material. A preprint platform may require authors to post the manuscript under a particular license, which may conflict with the license or copyright transfer agreements that may ultimately be required by a journal where the author intends to publish the work. Licensing is also a consideration in situations where a researcher may wish to self-archive the paper via a preprint platform after having published the work in a peer-reviewed journal. Manuscripts submitted to preprint servers do not undergo much, if any, screening prior to being posted. Some preprint platforms perform some basic screening to prevent inappropriate material from being posted (e.g. papers containing libellous or defamatory material), but the level and timing of screening varies from one platform to another. Currently, there are also no industry-wide standards for how to handle preprints once a major concern is identified about content, methods or reporting in a published article. Some preprint platforms such as preprints.org note that preprints cannot be removed except in exceptional circumstances involving misconduct or legal concerns, but other servers may allow removal of content at the author’s request. Some critics have raised concerns that preprints may have a negative impact on the credibility and public perception towards research, since the information has not been scrutinised and validated via peer review. For example, what are the risks if a preprint with a potential impact on public health is interpreted by some as established evidence?
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