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The role of preprints in the dissemination of scientific research

In the traditional scholarly publishing model, it may take several months or maybe even years for a manuscript to be peer-reviewed and published. Prolonged times to publication deprive authors of the benefits of credit and visibility through citations.

But preprints serve as a solution to achieve transparency by enabling faster dissemination of research.

Preprints — The what and the why

A preprint is a version of a scientific manuscript shared publicly before it is submitted to a journal for formal peer review. It is a citable scientific record with its own unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI).

Preprint servers are online repositories where authors can post their manuscripts before publishing them in a journal. A number of preprint servers exist that are dedicated specifically to certain subject areas or specializations. Some examples include arXiv (physical science), bioRxiv (biology), and SocArXiv (social science).

Preprints enable other researchers or reviewers to comment on the article, providing quicker feedback and improving research outcomes. The article remains on the preprint server even after being published in a journal.

Preprints are steadily gaining popularity among researchers due to the many benefits they offer.

Faster and safer research dissemination

Faster dissemination of research is of utmost importance, especially during a situation where the entire world is battling a highly communicable disease like COVID-19. The traditional methods of publishing with a long peer-review process hinder the progress in research dissemination. In contrast, preprint servers like medRxiv take only around 4 to 5 days to check the quality of work before publishing online.

The faster publishing process in the preprint servers doesn’t imply poor quality of research articles in them. The preprint servers bioRxiv and medRxiv have applied review processes to make sure articles with unproven claims or unethical standards are rejected. However, a critical point to note is that preprints, unlike the Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM) and the Version of Record (VOR), are not formally peer reviewed. 

Improved citations and Altmetric score

According to a study conducted by the bibliometrics researcher Nicholas Fraser, research articles posted as preprints before journal publications have more citations and online mentions than articles without the preprint versions.

Most preprint servers provide a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to the articles posted in them, which increases the chances of the articles being cited as they are widely available as open access (OA) and are found earlier than the final published papers to be cited in studies. Preprint servers also create a link to the final published article in a journal through its URL, which brings higher visibility and more citations for the linked paper as well.

Better feedback

The traditional peer-review process restricts participation to only a few experts, and the process is slow, lacks transparency, and may be subjected to bias. Preprints, on the other hand, enable authors to receive valuable feedback from several experts in the field. This feedback helps them improve and develop their article before submitting it to a journal, increasing the chances of manuscript acceptance. Readers can send feedback to an article in a preprint server by directly commenting on it, sending it to the author’s email, or via social media.

Open feedback through unconventional methods, such as email, direct comments in preprint servers, and social media platforms like Twitter, create opportunities for future collaborations in research and facilitate better reach within the scientific community.

Enhanced career opportunities for Early Career Researchers (ECRs)

Starting a career as a researcher can be a daunting challenge. Preprint servers help address some of the issues faced by early career researchers. Preprints enable faster dissemination of the works of ECRs and provide them visibility to help gain recognition and funding from institutions. They serve as cost-effective alternatives compared to highly-priced subscription-based journals for publishing their works as well as to access published research papers.

Applications and trends in preprints

Preprints can be traced back to the early 1960s, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted an experimental circulation of biological preprints, then known as the Information Exchange Groups (IEGs). Three decades later, preprint repositories began emerging, parallel to the traditionally published journals. Since then, preprint servers have grown exponentially in a variety of disciplines, including chemistry, biology, psychology, and more. 

However, the adoption of the preprint culture depends on several factors like scholarly community acceptance of open practices, individual preferences, publisher and funder policies, and socio-technological factors.

Green OA

Green OA is the practice of archiving the final version of the published articles in preprint servers after an embargo period. With the OA movement gaining momentum, funders and publishers are showing support for green OA by encouraging researchers to submit the final version of their peer-reviewed articles to independent repositories like preprint servers. For example, the Wellcome Trust is one of the funding institutions that has started accepting preprints in their grant applications as of 2017.

Preprints contribute to green OA by enabling free access to research articles for a wider audience, usually after a predetermined period following being published in a journal. 

Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA)

Each preprint server has its own submission processes and workflows, and there are variations in how submissions are handled by different systems. MECA, a NISO approved recommended practice for “manuscript exchange with low barriers to entry,” was initially created to develop a framework for easy transfer of manuscripts and peer review data across publishers and manuscript systems. MECA is a potential solution to ease the authors’ burden to address the gaps of manuscript submissions to and from preprint servers.

Foundation of overlay journals

Preprints have spurred the development of overlay journals publishing models apart from the various other applications in open access. An overlay journal does not create content on its own, but it does a refereeing service. It links the articles published in an online repository with a DOI associated with it. Overlay journals also help increase the credibility of the research posted in preprint servers.

Overlay journals tend to incur lower journal costs than traditional publishing as overlay articles have no production expense. For example, JMIRx is a series of overlay journals for preprint servers like medRxiv, bioRxiv, and PsyArXiv.

Role of preprints in open science

Preprints support the open science movement by enabling timely and transparent dissemination of research. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, when the scientific community and the public health system were addressing the pandemic, the usage of preprints grew by multiple folds

Among the 125,000 articles published during the first ten months of the initial outbreak, over 30,000 articles were published via preprint servers—free for scientists, physicians, policymakers, journalists, and the public to access. Sensitive and critical research, such as articles related to COVID-19, undergoes a pre-screening in medical preprint repositories like medRxiv and bioRxiv to check for plagiarism, author consent, and ethical approval, ruling out instances of poor or unethical research practices.

Focusing on the pillars of open science, preprints are free of cost and accessible by everyone, allowing faster and wider dissemination of research than traditional publishing methods.

Preprints have come a long way, and various stakeholders in the research community continue to voice their opinion for and against them. Although there is much debate surrounding the potential disadvantages of preprints, such as archiving costs and the risks they pose to research novelty, preprints ought to be acknowledged as a sincere attempt towards the progression of scientific findings through transparency. The preprint landscape is evolving fast, and the cooperation of all the players in the community will likely influence the growth and development of preprints in the future.

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