Significant events have occurred in rapid succession in the last year signaling that preprints, the author’s original manuscript before submission to a journal, will play a much larger role in the landscape. Developments with DOIs, changes in funder expectations, and the launch of new services indicate that preprints will no longer be limited to the hard sciences and social sciences.
The success of arXiv was due in part to the fact that the high energy physics community had been sharing their preprints via email prior to the launch of the server which solved the problem of clogged mail boxes. Researchers value the ability to preview papers and receive feedback on their work prior to formal publication. Analyses have shown that a high percentage of articles in arXiv subsequently appear in the Web of Science, confirming their publication in a formal journal with an impact factor.
In contrast, other fields have lagged behind, specifically the life sciences and medicine which represent the largest area of the sciences. The chart below shows the growth of life science preprints per month from 2006-2017. Growth was sluggish until 2014 and grew as more options became available including bioRxiv, F1000 Research, PeerJ, The Winnower, and Preprints.org. In the last two years, the volume has tripled and much of the growth is attributable to bioRxiv. Wellcome Open Research is considered the newest addition and launched in November last year.
Beyond life sciences the level of activity indicates a recognition that preprints have value to their communities.
- The American Chemical Society (ACS) shared plans in August 2016 to collaborate with stakeholders in the global chemistry community to launch ChemRxiv. The goal is to advance the pace of scientific discovery and information dissemination. This will be a joint undertaking with Chemical Abstracts Service and is expected to have interoperability with various sources of chemistry related information.
- The Center for Open Science (COS) provides infrastructure branded as Open Science Framework (OSF). They have recently launched PsyArXiv, AgriXiv, SocArXiv and engrXiv.
- SciELO, the Scientific Electronic Library Online, is a decentralized platform that provides open access to more than 1200 journals from Latin America and Spain. They announced a preprint service that will be launched in 2018.
- The Social Science Research Network (SSRN ) provides a preprint service to individuals and university departments and has a core subject strength in economics and law. Established over 25 years ago, SSRN was acquired by Elsevier in 2016.
While all of this activity suggests that 2017 may be considered the ‘year of the preprint’, the success of these ventures will be determined over time.
Preprint servers put authors in control of when their research is released
The time to publication can extend 1-2 years from when authors first submit to the most prestigious journals and then undergo a full peer review with multiple resubmissions. An article in Nature (February 2016) asks: “Does it take too long to publish research?” It describes lengthening review periods over the last decade despite shorter production cycles.
Preprints permit dissemination to occur quickly, while allowing peer review to take the time required for certification. With preprints the author has control over when the results become public for feedback from their community and when they can claim priority of discovery. Preprints may be sufficient for distribution of certain research results, such as null results. Paul Ginsparg, who founded arXiv, notes that Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture, for which he was awarded the Field Medal in 2006, appeared only in arXiv.
Concerns have been raised that preprints will be detrimental to publishers. However, some preprint services are providing ways to facilitate the transfer of content to publishers. In January bioRxiv enabled authors to post their articles to the preprint server and have their files forwarded to a journal for submission at the same time. eLife enables authors submitting papers to have them sent to bioRxiv at the same time. Many journals allow preprint posting and in an interesting shift, PLoS Genetics has designated three “preprint editors” whose job is to invite submissions from authors with preprints posted.
David Crotty moderated an SSP webinar on the “Future of Preprints” in November 2016. The panel included representatives of bioRxiv, SSRN and ACS to explore the potential role of preprints in scholarly publishing. All three speakers envisioned the co-existence of preprints and peer reviewed articles. While responses varied, expectations for the landscape were consistent.
- Discovery relies on Google Scholar and DOI links. DOIs for each version are necessary for clarity in archiving.
- Funding sources (donors, partnerships, etc) should be able to underwrite the cost of a service that is free for authors.
- Preprints may be reviewed for plagiarism, metadata and to detect junk science.
DOIs and funder acceptance legitimize preprints
Crossref announced in November 2016 that it had developed the appropriate schema and linking relationships for preprints and was accepting them as a content type. This means that an author’s preliminary work will be fully citable as soon as it is available, and can then be linked to the final peer-reviewed version wherever it is published.
Crossref has a policy regarding obligations and limitations for members depositing preprints. There are multiple benefits of having a DOI for preprints including:
- Auto-update of ORCID records to ensure that preprint contributors get credit for their work
- Preprint and funder registration to automatically report research contributions based on funder and grant identification
- Discoverability as the metadata is made available for machine and human access across multiple interfaces.
Crossref has expectations regarding permanent availability of preprint content. ACS intends to use Portico for archiving, for example. An additional concern to be addressed involves registration of revised versions. A surprising percent of submissions are revisions: SSRN indicates 40% and bioRxiv indicates 30%. Clearly identifying and preserving all versions may be an evolving topic for preprint repositories.
A major event occurred in January 2017 when Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (UK) announced policies allowing researchers to cite their own preprints in grant applications and reports. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed suit in March. Twitter lit up with younger researchers reacting positively to the NIH announcement.
Proliferation of preprint services has attracted funder attention
ASAPbio is a scientist-driven initiative to promote the use of preprints in the life sciences. An initial meeting was held at HHMI early in 2016 to discuss the future of preprints. A good summary of the stakeholders’ views appears in Science (May 2016). Meetings with funders, technical experts and scientific societies were held to identify barriers to adoption. A progress report by Jessica Polka, Director of ASAPbio, appears in CSE Science Editor (February 2017) and identifies key factors that will affect preprint growth. These include:
- Cultural change
- Preprint policies at universities
- Preprints and scholarly journals
- New players and infrastructure
The proliferation of preprint servers apparent in this post has come to the attention of funders. Concerns have been raised regarding issues related to discoverability, permanence, and consistency across these services. In February 2017, ASAPbio received a $1 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to develop a new service to aggregate life sciences preprints and promote their visibility and innovative reuse.
These developments raise a number of questions:
- What is necessary in each discipline for preprints to take their place as part of the scholarly publishing life cycle?
- What does widespread adoption of preprints mean for the version of record?
- What implications does this trend have for libraries and institutional repositories?
- Will many publishers use preprints to identify and recruit potential submissions?
- Do preprints offer a solution for the publication of negative results?
- How long will it take to reach a tipping point where the majority of academic review and hiring committees recognize preprints as part of their body of work?
The role of preprints is clearly evolving in a way that will affect all stakeholders. The stars are aligning. Be sure to have your telescope handy.