For years now, preprint communities have provided a glimmer of an alternative to the journal publishing system, that speed and efficiency might replace what has seemed to many like a cumbersome editorial and peer review process. What started in a small set of originating fields such as high energy physics in 1991 has, in recent years, begun to take hold elsewhere, including the biomedical sciences. Today, Ithaka S+R has published an overview of key developments in preprint communities, which are grappling with an array of policy issues as they seek to build trust in a contested information environment and build durable business strategies.
Rob Johnson and Andrea Chiarelli recently looked at some of the options that publishers face in engaging with preprints. Today, we observe that beyond preprint communities that are typically organized around a field or set of fields, in recent years all the major publishers have made their own investments in preprint platforms. Publishers are integrating preprint deposit into their manuscript submission workflows, and adopting a common strategy designed to take back control of preprints.
Launched in 2018, Research Square is today being marketed as the world’s fastest-growing preprint platform, hosting over 20,000 preprints as of May 2020. Springer Nature is an important minority investor, and former Springer Nature open access executive Rachel Burley is ResearchSquare’s President. Last year, it began an important initiative to host preprints of the manuscripts submitted to select Springer Nature titles, its so-called “In Review” service.
In Review is a preprint service that gives authors the option to have their paper posted online at the time of submission. It also gives authors and readers access to the status of a manuscript via a peer review timeline during the peer review process. If a manuscript is not accepted for publication, the associated preprint remains on the platform but disassociated from any journal branding or submission process information.
Springer Nature’s goal is not to provide a one-to-one link between the journal website and its preprints site on Research Square. Rather, preprints can live in a variety of locations per the author’s choice. However, for those Research Square preprints that yield a published article on a Springer Nature platform, there will be a link from the preprint to the version of record. Springer Nature’s Steven Inchcoombe described this as an “article-centric, not journal-centric, approach.”
Springer Nature first introduced the In Review service on its open access portfolio (i.e., SpringerOpen and BioMed Central), since presumably author acceptance of the service there would be highest. Over time, it will be expanded to most if not all of Springer Nature’s hybrid/traditional portfolio as well.
The workflow to enable a service like this is no small thing, especially given the interoperability required across the systems. The manuscript submission system, through which the author submits an article for consideration by a specific journal and the editorial and peer review process is managed, is the linchpin. The workflow enabled by these systems must be modified to add an option for the author to choose whether to deposit the manuscript as a preprint. If the author chooses the preprint option, the system must affirmatively initiate the deposit (both of the manuscript and its accompanying metadata). And this process must interact appropriately with whatever screening process (for plagiarism, ethical considerations, etc.) is put in place for submissions on the preprint platform. As the manuscript works its way through the journal’s editorial and peer review process, updated progress information must be shared back to the preprint site. And finally, when the article is published, a link to it is placed on the preprint platform, while if the manuscript is rejected or withdrawn, the preprint metadata are updated in other ways. The upshot: the back and forth between the manuscript submission and management system on the one hand and the preprint service on the other hand is extensive.
The Springer Nature journals in the current In Review service utilize Aries/Editorial Manager as their manuscript submission platform. This caught our attention because some observers have questioned whether Elsevier would be able to maintain neutrality for Aries following its purchase. But, whether this happened readily or after protracted negotiations, Elsevier’s Aries is now supporting a workflow that enables the deposit of manuscripts not with its own SSRN but with Springer Nature’s Research Square. Some observers will read into this a meaningful victory for cross-publisher interoperability. Springer Nature and its society publishers also utilize three other manuscript submission and management systems, and an expansion of In Review will require modifications to these other systems to enable links to ResearchSquare.
Inchcoombe was comfortable referring to Digital Science as a “sister” company, emphasizing that it would be surprising if there were not ways for Springer Nature’s Research Square and Digital Science’s Figshare to collaborate more closely over time. It is interesting to hear the nature of the family relationship from the Springer Nature perspective, given questions about that relationship that one of us has raised and the fact that Digital Science has emphasized its independence.
As Wiley’s Todd Toler told us emphatically, “We are very pro preprinting.” Much like Springer Nature’s service described above, Wiley’s Under Review service enables authors to deposit their manuscript as a preprint while it is being editorially reviewed by a Wiley journal. Under Review is currently being expanded from a preliminary pilot at the beginning of the year, and Wiley has expanded it to 37 journals (a mixture of traditional/hybrid and pure open access titles) more quickly than anticipated to accommodate more of its journals that are most involved in pandemic research. A little more than one third of submissions to Wiley’s pilot journals are now being deposited as preprints as a result of this service.
When the author agrees to submit the preprint, it is deposited with the Authorea collaborative authoring platform of Wiley’s Atypon publishing technology business. Information is available on that preprint about review status and ultimately publication, although if the paper is not accepted then the preprint metadata is disassociated from the manuscript submission process for the journal in question — another point of contact between the manuscript submission system and the preprint platform.
The complexity of this workflow makes it understandable that a pilot is limited in certain ways. Initially, the service is being offered only for Wiley journals. Eventually, it is possible that it will be made available to all of Atypon’s platform customers. It will be interesting to see whether these preprints would be portable should a publisher switch from Atypon to, say, Silverchair — or whether they will serve as a form of stickiness to entice publishers to stay on the Atypon stack. For now, Under Review is limited only to one manuscript submission system. Wiley’s journals portfolio operates on several manuscript submission systems, and thus far only ScholarOne accommodates the Under Review workflow. With Springer Nature already able to utilize Aries to deposit in Research Square, it cannot be long until Wiley is similarly able to utilize Aries to deposit with Authorea.
While Springer Nature and Wiley pursue fairly similar submission-integrated models using Research Square and Authorea, respectively, Elsevier has a far more powerful building block with SSRN. When Elsevier acquired SSRN in 2016, it was buying not merely a technology platform, but more importantly a set of field-specific communities (or “research networks”). Since the acquisition, SSRN has continued to develop these communities, currently hosting more than 50.
Elsevier’s 2018 acquisition of Aries Systems, which provides a suite of publishing workflow solutions, most notably Editorial Manager which was referenced above as part of Springer Nature’s In Review system, is an important piece of the puzzle. SSRN’s president at the time of acquisition, Gregg Gordon, was also assigned some Aries responsibilities for a period of time following its acquisition.
As Gordon explained to us last week, “We have never believed that preprints are a replacement for the published article.” Instead, much the same as Springer Nature and Wiley, Elsevier has steadily developed its systems to connect preprints and SSRN with the Aries / Editorial Manager publishing workflow.
First, it has developed the FirstLook service, which enables manuscripts submitted to journals to be viewed as preprints on SSRN. Some 60 journals are currently using this service to create branded homes for their preprints on SSRN. It has seen substantial uptake through Cell Press and Lancet titles (all Elsevier publications), especially in light of pandemic-related research. Gordon stressed to us that no medical-related materials are issued as preprints without basic editorial review by a Cell Press or Lancet editor. Gordon told us that Elsevier is “in active conversations with several journals from other publishers about launching First Looks for them.” It will be interesting to see if the SSRN/FirstLook service is integrated with other manuscript submission services beyond Aries/Editorial Manager.
FirstLook has a workflow quite similar to In Review and Under Review, in that a manuscript is submitted to a journal and then, following comparatively light editorial review, it is deposited as a preprint while subsequent editorial steps, including peer review, take place. But Gordon distinguishes FirstLook because of the community elements that the preprint (and its authors) experience through the SSRN research networks. As a result, an author might hope to see more constructive engagement with their work, in parallel with the journal editorial process, allowing them to receive additional input on their manuscript, which can be thereby improved prior to publication. There is also currently a pilot to enable the use of an Aries/Editorial Manager workflow to deposit an article directly into an SSRN research network, without a journal branded FirstLook.
And, Elsevier has been developing (but has not yet released) an “Ingest from SSRN” workflow that would allow journal editors using Aries / Editorial Manager to source manuscripts at an early stage in the research lifecycle from among the working papers, proceedings, and preprints, among other content, appearing on SSRN. If it is worthwhile to offer a “vertical stack” manuscript sourcing service, it is because SSRN has an active preprint community of deposits and accompanying engagement prior to manuscripts being submitted to journals.
SSRN continues to integrate with other parts of Elsevier, for instance enabling content exchange with Mendeley, Mendeley Data, Pure, and Plum. It also has piloted an integration with Digital Commons, the repository service that Elsevier acquired in 2017 as part of bepress. Digital Commons hosts numerous preprints on behalf of institutional customers, and perhaps some of these SSRN/Aries integrations will one day carry over to Digital Commons as well.
Taylor & Francis
If Springer Nature and Wiley are each introducing a preprint platform into its article submission workflow, and Elsevier is establishing a bidirectional flow between article submission and its SSRN preprint communities, Taylor & Francis (T&F) seems to have been eyeing the possibility of an even bolder change to its editorial processes when, in January 2020, it acquired F1000 Research (hereafter just F1000).
In many ways, F1000 provides the workflow that the other publishers discussed above are trying to jury rig on existing systems. As F1000’s Liz Allen explained to us, they “want to change the publishing model” and are well positioned to do so as they are not trying to retool a legacy system.To be sure, F1000 has probably received the most attention for its post-publication “open peer review” model, as well as its emphasis on funder specific portals, for example Wellcome, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Health Research Board Ireland, and most recently the European Commission. But, for our purposes today, F1000 is best understood as having provided an elegant publishing workflow from submission to preprint to review to publication. Once an author submits a manuscript and following a basic level of editorial review, for example for plagiarism, the version that others might consider a “preprint” is “published” and the peer review process is initiated. As (open) peer reviews are submitted, the author has the opportunity to revise the paper.
The F1000 model is not identical to the approaches that the others are taking. They have not (yet) made any moves in the direction of open peer review, and they have been careful to enable a rejected or withdrawn manuscript to have its preprint disassociated from the journal submission workflow so that it could be resubmitted elsewhere and published. Still, this fundamental F1000 workflow appears to be the direction in which the others are headed.
Bearing this in mind, it is reasonable to anticipate that F1000 may represent a model workflow that T&F may wish to adopt for other parts of its more traditional publishing program. Already, F1000 is being used as the basis for open publishing workflows for other publishers such as Emerald Publishing. It will be interesting to see if, over time, not only the F1000 workflow but also its technology stack, or elements of it, are brought into larger scale use at T&F. The idea that with F1000 T&F was purchasing not just an open access service, but potentially a technology stack that could one day replace Atypon/Literatum and ScholarOne and Aries, would make it an even more interesting acquisition than some have recognized.
A number of other publishers are operating preprint services. Most of these are scholarly societies that are attempting to build preprint communities that do not yet appear to be connected to any publishing workflow. For example,
- IEEE operates TechRxiv, for technical research in electrical engineering, computer science, and related areas;
- The American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, Chemical Society of Japan, the Chinese Chemical Society, and German Chemical Society operate ChemRxiv;
- The American Geophysical Union (in partnership with Atypon and Wiley) operates Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr); and
- The American Political Science Association (APSA) (in collaboration with Cambridge University Press) operates APSA Preprints.
Preprint communities attached to a scholarly society, or a group of allied societies, has a certain logic to it in expanding the peer networking element of a society.
Additionally, just as Elsevier envisions for SSRN, so several other publishers are also seeing the possibility to use preprints for article sourcing purposes. SAGE operates a preprint service called Advance, focusing on humanities and social sciences scholarship. Advance runs on the Figshare platform (as do other preprint services, including those from several scholarly societies). Once approved for posting on Advance, papers can be submitted, at the author’s option, to a SAGE journal. Similarly, eLife recently launched a service in which papers submitted to bioRxiv are reviewed both for potential publication with eLife and for public comments on the bioRxiv site. Both the SAGE and eLife examples show publishers looking at preprint services as article sourcing platforms.
Preprints are not an unalloyed positive good, and some observers are less than keen on them. Kent Anderson in particular has been waging war against preprints over the past year, in conference appearances and especially on his blog The Geyser. He has been marshalling an array of arguments about the damage preprints are doing to the culture and practice of scientific communication. The major publishing incumbents do not seem to agree: The stars have been aligning for preprints, and now each of the major publishers has made a substantial investment.
To be sure, publishers have different ideas about preprints, or are at different stages of development. It is clear however that the largest commercial publishers are working in parallel, in a challenging systems environment, to expand their publishing workflows to incorporate preprints.
They appear to have some combination of two objectives. First, it seems they will use preprints to argue that they have accelerated the pace of scholarly communication without compromising the peer review process and the time it requires. Rather than suffering a critique for the timeline from submission to publication, they can argue that they have disseminated the preprint just days after submission, since it is now their own services that are distributing the preprints rather than a true third party. They will also be able to demonstrate, for the doubters, the exact value provided by editorial and peer review processes.
Perhaps more significantly, however, they are bringing preprints inside their publishing workflows. This will afford them an opportunity to emphasize the importance of the version of record and its integrity. And, it will allow them to maximize their control over the research workflow as a whole, including datasets, protocols, and other artifacts of the research and publishing process. If successful, over time publishers will see fewer of the preprints of their eventual publications living “in the wild” and more of them on services and in workflows that they control.
As a byproduct of introducing these workflows, publishers may over time be able to introduce a more efficient and consistent layer of quality control than has been available through some existing preprint services. For scholars and the general public, this may be a benefit that publisher involvement will bring. Given that only 50-70 percent of preprints eventually get published in peer reviewed journals, it will be interesting to see if publishers will continue focusing on early versions of articles they hope to publish, or if they will expand into early versions of other format types they publish, such as short works or case reports .
And their involvement is coming with no small amount of investment. Beyond the expenses to purchase or build preprint platforms, the workflow and resulting platform integration challenges are substantial. Several major publishers are proceeding by altering existing manuscript management systems to enable workflows that connect them up with preprint services. T&F seems to be taking a different approach, envisioning that it will find more flexibility by scaling up the F1000 platform. The competitive dynamics here, especially in light of Elsevier’s purchase of Aries, will continue to be intriguing to follow.
Notwithstanding the expenditures they are making here, it is not clear that in entering the preprints business publishers stand to see any substantial revenue opportunity. This is an opportunity to strengthen control of the workflow and defend the version of record. In a future Kitchen piece, we will explore how this landscape of publisher initiatives for preprints connects to other community preprint initiatives.
We thank the following individuals for interviews and other assistance in preparing this piece: Liz Allen, Camille Gamboa, Gregg Gordon, Shari Hofer, Steven Inchcoombe, Eric Merkel-Sobotta, Kristen Modelo, Alberto Pepe, Caroline Sutton, Todd Toler, David Tucker, and Susie Winters. We thank Kimberly Lutz for reading a draft of this piece.