Whither preprints?

In recent times there has been a proliferation of preprint servers and a much larger uptake on the part of authors. Few objections have been raised to this trend and I wonder whether this is almost everyone in the scholarly bubble see preprints as fitting into their own world view: traditionalists see no threat to journals and supportive of the editorial process. Those seeking change see the potential for preprints to replace journals, or at least greatly alter the status quo.

In this post I want to spell out some of the possible future scenarios. The most likely future, of course, is that one of these visions will not dominate: different disciplines will come to their own conclusions and it should be up to research communities to decide.

The main issue in looking at different scenarios is how one moves a piece of research from the tentative/draft phase into the corpus of accepted literature, or whether such a distinction is even necessary.

Here are four possible scenarios for preprints in the future.

The status quo

Here, journals stay as the guardians of accepted research and operate as they do currently. Preprints are a tool for getting early feedback and making some results known ahead of time but are viewed as very much inferior to journal articles and not considered essential to the publication process.

This situation seems to prevail for physicists, even though they regularly post to arXiv: journal publication after peer review is still very important, especially when it comes to promotion and funding. Despite recent moves for acceptance of preprints in grant applications, e.g. by the NIH, there haven’t been similar announcements about job applications or promotion. The attitudes of universities and other research institutions is probably critical for moving away from the status quo or maintaining things as they are.

Preprints plus journals

In this scenario journals continue as they are but preprints are also recognised as first class research objects. Preprints can be cited, used in hiring and promotion decisions, and grant applications. They are read with a healthy amount of scepticism but cited where appropriate and fix the first reporting of research results (i.e., they provide scoop protection).

From what I can gather, this is the aim of ASAPbio. Gaining recognition from a broad range of institutions is a key element here and the major difference between this and the previous scenario. For publishers, journal publication goes on as usual, but it could lead them to modify how they solicit articles and give options for slower, more thorough peer review (see, e.g. this post from Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen).

Preprints disappear

It is not a scenario I hope for, but it is possible that in some fields preprints will never catch on. Either not enough is communicated about their benefits, or there may be specific areas with a specific objection. A field (although I struggle to think of one) where speed of publication is not important stands to gain less from wider use of preprints. Some may argue that fields where individual papers can have very large impact may require greater validation before making research public. Putting the lid on scandal like the vaccine-autism link controversy on a regular basis could cause headaches for scientists. There are good reasons I don’t think it would play out like that, but I’ll leave them for another discussion.

The main way to avoid this scenario is clear articulation of benefits and proper engagement with reasonable objections to preprints. So far, the discussion I’ve seen has been mostly high quality and polite, long may it remain that way!

Overlay journals

A compelling argument is the idea that peer review is costly and inefficient and preprints offer a low-cost and effective alternative. Some kind of validation, such as community-organised peer review, can be made after a preprint has been put online. This has already happened (e.g. Tim Gowers’ Discrete Analysis and Andrew Gelman proposes a super-arXiv overlay journal).

It is, of course, unlikely that publishers and editors would readily agree to such a move and a significant cultural shift needs to take place for this eventuality to prevail, even within a single field. The main objection from publishers is about protecting income: a shift from the $5000 per article average income now to something around $100 would put almost every publisher out of business based on current practices – both for-profit and non-profits. However, some fields with limited funding and where fee-based open access is viewed with scepticism may find this a very attractive proposal

A step further questions the necessity of journals at all. Why does the opinion of two or three reviewers and one editor provide a solid validation of research? Peer review has been frequently questioned, but this option would require a new way to validate and test results. I am not aware of any serious proposals in this direction, but I think it’s a space well worth watching in the coming few years.

Conclusion

Which is the best of these scenarios? Unlike the debate on open access, I don’t think this needs to become binary and polarized. Simply posting a preprint does not favour any of the above: the main differences are about how the rest of the research ecosystem values and validates a preprint. It is certainly possible that multiple scenarios can exist side-by-side. It is an exciting time for preprints and I hope that discussing these kinds of options moves higher up the agenda of decision-makers in scholarly research communication.