Making Preprints Popular

One of the points I labelled as critical for preprints in my previous post was that they should be quickly adopted by various disciplines. Putting an e-print on arXiv is normal in a number of discplines. On the other hand, while increasing numbers of preprints are being made available in other disciplines, for example biology, they remain a small fraction of the overall number of papers published in the field.

Advocates of preprints should aim for the numbers to expand quickly. If use of preprints is not rapidly normalized and they are ignored by the majority of researchers it will become ever harder to drive continued interest. What strategies could advocates of preprints use and what are the end goals? This post focuses mainly on the former. There are, of course, different options. Here’s a few strategies that I think are viable.

Option 1: Field-by-field stakeholder adoption

Resources can be focused on one field, be it biology, engineering, physical chemistry etc. Widespread adoption can be achieved via buy-in from a relatively small number of important stakeholders. On the other hand, resistance from just one of these groups could cause doubt and confusion and stall the process. The strategy here, which ASAPbio seems to have followed, is rapid take-up in a short space of time and to incorporate preprints into the research infrastructure through acceptance by funders, publishers and institutions. This strategy can be thought of as a top-down approach where the involvement of organizations is key to persuading researchers of the acceptability of preprints.

Option 2: Broad adoption

In this strategy, an increasing minority of researchers from multiple disciplines start posting preprints. This is really a bottom-up approach, with change driven by the habits of individual users. It is immediately less disruptive than option 1, but over time institutions will need to find a way to incorporate the needs of those making use of preprints, particularly when it comes to assessing impact and citations. There is a risk for those who use preprints if the pace of adaptation is to slow, however, as their efforts to preprint would not be recognised. They could end up with a significant chunk of their work being discounted.

Option 3: Bring out the big guns

A few highly influential individuals and/or institutions showcase the use of preprints our make use of them and demonstrate the benefits. Rather than a long-term strategy, this is a kick-starter to get others involved and get preprints on the agenda. It’s a big carrot for others to look at and follow their lead.

The reality is that a combination of options is likely to be followed. I’d be interested to hear from early adopters of preprints in physics as to what the main drivers were.

These strategies could plausibly apply for a number of new ideas, but what issues are particular to preprints?

First, preprints have a base to start from and examples to follow. They have been proven influential in several disciplines and new fields should learn from ArXiv, SSRN and others.

Second is the question of how disruptive preprints will be to established systems. Currently they work alongside the normal publishing process. There are future scenarios where preprints become so important that journals are less vital than today, or even irrelevant. Is that possible or desirable? Could preprints even enhance and add value to journal publications? Are there any unintended consequences of preprint/journal interactions?

There are many who see the current preprints boom as a positive step, but it is worth considering what comes after the first step and where the destination should be. I suspect there are differing views and I would very much welcome them in comments below.