Editor’s Note: Over the last week, we’ve had two posts looking at the potential changes to the research communication workflow that are now emerging as preprints become a more accepted part of the landscape. Tim Vines suggests that preprints may change our mindset enough to allow for multiple simultaneous (and disconnected) peer review processes to take place for manuscripts. Byron Russell, John Sack, Alison McGonagle-O’Connell, and Tony Alves gave us a view of how publishers are now adapting their traditional submission pathways to integrate preprints. Both posts highlighted some of the latest initiatives that offer (at times) editorially-driven and organized peer review efforts for preprints. All of which got me thinking back to the 2017 post revisited below. How do we define what a “preprint” is, and where is the line drawn between it and a “published” article? I’ve always thought of preprints as early versions of a manuscript before they’ve gone through a complete editorially-driven peer review process. Is that the right place to draw the line, or is the sole difference the thumbs-up decision from a journal editor to accept the manuscript? Please weigh in below in the comments — what differentiates a “preprint” from a “published paper”?
A figure in Judy Luther’s recent post on the state of preprints caught my eye (and was noticed by several commenters). The figure (below), comes from the ASAPBio site, and shows the remarkable growth of preprints in the life sciences. What was interesting to me was the inclusion of several formal journals mixed in with the usual preprint servers, notably F1000 Research, Wellcome Open Research, and The Winnower. This raises significant questions about just what, exactly, we consider a “preprint”.
ASAPBio’s definition of a “preprint” can be found here. ASAPBio seems pretty inclusive in the different types of models they consider preprint servers. Jordan Anaya, who is credited in the figure agrees, “…that F1000Research and Wellcome Open Research are not preprint servers in the sense of bioRxiv, PeerJ Preprints, and preprints.org,” but still felt they were worth including in the PrePubMed search tool. Wikipedia offers a fairly concise definition for preprints:
In academic publishing, a preprint is a version of a scholarly or scientific paper that precedes publication in a peer-reviewed scholarly or scientific journal. The preprint may persist, often as a non-typeset version available free, after a paper is published in a journal.
The key to the definition of “preprint” is in the prefix “pre”. A preprint is the author’s original manuscript, before it has been formally published in a journal. One of the primary purposes of preprints is that they allow authors to collect feedback on their work and improve it before submitting it for formal peer review and publication.
The three journals mentioned above (and presumably the new Gates Foundation flavor of F1000 Research) all work on a post-publication peer review model. The author submits a manuscript, and after some editorial checking, it is officially published online in the journal. At this point, the peer review process begins. Regardless of whether the paper is accepted immediately, revised multiple times, or ultimately rejected, it is considered “published”. The author cannot withdraw the article and submit it to another journal.
This is “post”, not “pre”. Once the manuscript goes live, it is considered “published”, and peer review is “post-publication”. It’s worth noting that you will not find the words “publish” or “published” anywhere in bioRxiv’s documentation — they scrupulously use the words “post” and “posted” instead to differentiate what’s happening from formal publication in a journal.
If a journal like Cell or Nature posted a free copy of the author’s original submission alongside the published article, would they also be considered preprint servers? Speaking of Cell, what are we to make of Cell Press Sneak Peek? Essentially, authors who submit to Cell can have their manuscripts publicly posted on a special Mendeley group open to those willing to register. Does this make Mendeley (and Cell, for that matter) a preprint server? What about journals that practice open peer review? As part of this practice, each iteration of the article is often posted, along with reviewer comments and correspondence. Are these to be considered preprint servers as well?
The key to the definition of “preprint” is in the prefix “pre”.
As new ground is broken and new models arise, new terminologies and new definitions become necessary. Preprints are generally being presented to the research community as a way to get their work out quickly, while not hampering, in any way, one’s ability to publish the work in a journal that will provide maximum career benefits. Mixing in journals that formally publish the preprint version of an article and do not allow re-submission elsewhere muddies the water about just what a preprint is supposed to be.
Getting the terminology right has implications for how research is communicated and the trust it engenders. Already, this fuzzy terminology around preprints is sowing confusion. Take, for example, this article from a recent issue of The Economist. The Economist appears to be both muddling open access and preprints and suggesting that science move to using preprints in place of journals, eliding the fact that preprints are not peer reviewed.
Post-publication peer review models are interesting and valuable additions to the landscape, but they are, by definition, publication models, not pre-publication servers. If we want to drive the use of preprints by researchers, we need to be clear about what we are asking them to do.