Where do we go from here?

In recent times there has been a proliferation of preprint servers and much larger uptake by researchers, particularly in biology. Few objections have been raised to the concept of preprints and I wonder whether this is because most see preprints as reinforcing into their own position: traditionalists see then as no threat to journals, and supportive of the editorial process via providing feedback ahead of submission. Those at the more radical end of the spectrum see the potential to overthrow the system and ask why we need journals any more.

In this post I want to lay out four possible future scenarios for preprints. Most likely, as currently, different disciplines will take different routes and all of the scenarios may co-exist. This is not a debate that needs to polarise and finish at one end point. It is up to research communities to decide what works for them.

The main issues up for discussion are how to move a tentative piece of work into the corpus of accepted literature, and how preprints fit into the research cycle. Here are four possible scenarios:

1. The status quo

Here, journals stay as the guardians of accepted research and operate as currently. Preprints are a tool for early announcement that bypasses the often slow review and editorial process, and allows researchers to get early feedback on their work. This is more or less how physics has worked for a long time. In fact, I have heard it said that there is no great need for open access physics journals as everything is on arXiv.

This is the likely scenario for the immediate future as it doesn’t rock the boat. Researchers are generally conservative about changes to publishing and uptake of preprints in new disciplines is likely to be slow.

The status of preprints here is somewhat below journal articles. They are a kind of untested grey matter. This scenario places a great deal of faith in the efficacy of peer review and editorial decision-making, which has been much criticized. It seems a missed opportunity if preprints do not contribute to assessing research at least to some extent.

2. Preprints disappear

This is a scenario that I don’t really want to think about, but is a possibility. If there is a lack of widespread uptake of preprints and they are not recognised as valuable by funding bodies or in research assessment, they will become a burden to researchers and will gradually disappear: no new preprints will be added. The current signs point against this scenario, but only in certain fields. It is possible that preprints will never gain traction in other fields. There may be arguments against preprints, for example where clinical recommendations or patent applications are involved.

The way to avoid this endpoint involves some lobbying of influential organisations, as well as reaching a critical use mass for preprints. Tangible benefits for moderate effort need to be demonstrated.

3. Overlay journals

An overlay journal is one that directly publishes preprints. The editorial process takes place once the preprint is online.

In this scenario, the lines between preprints and journal articles become blurred. There is an editorial process, but it focuses on assessing the preprint directly, not a separately submitted piece of work. F1000 are essentially running this system, and Tim Gowers has set up the journal Discrete Analysis as an overlay on arXiv.

This approach has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of publishing, and bring transparency to the process and more control to authors. It also has the potential for established publishers to take control of the preprint process and tie authors into their platform. Which preprint server to post on could become almost as agonizing as which journal to submit to. I suspect there are unintended consequences also when preprints start to be used to assess individual performance and metrics applied.

An advantage of this approach, though, is that it puts preprints more concretely into the research cycle. This would be a good strategy to promote for supporters of open science.

4. No journals

For those opposed to the role of publishers as arbiters and gatekeepers of research dissemination, the idea of getting rid of journals altogether is quite appealing. In this scenario, preprints are published and readers can make their own mind up whether they are any good. Preprints replace journal articles. With flexibility to update preprints at any time, research should become more self-correcting than it is currently. Most researchers already rely on search engines and related algorithms to find work for them, so tagging an article as belonging to a specific journal is obselete.

On the other hand, how does someone new to the field rate articles in this scenario? Some papers will get a lot of attention, whereas a great deal of incorrect, uninteresting research, will be left untouched, unread and wrong. At least with journals ever article goes through a checking process, even if it has some flaws.

To conclude, each of these scenarios has strengths and weaknesses and, as I said above, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The main question to ask is whether they strengthen research output and lead to effective, creative work.