A Shopping List for Preprints

I started writing the first follow-up post to the introduction for Research Preprints a few days ago, before ASAPbio put out its call for running a central preprint service for the life sciences. My original intention was to list the things I think most urgently need to be addressed regarding preprints in the next five years. Here’s what I came up with, in no particular order:

  1. What is a preprint?
  2. Business models.
  3. Data and formats.
  4. Increase in the use of preprints and resolution of the citation dilemma.

Since the release of the ASAPbio call, I have become interested in how this list matches up with what they propose. First, a few words about the proposal. For those who are not familiar, ASAPbio advocates for wider use of preprints in the life sciences, and they have made an effort to engage many interested parties, including funders. One of their primary aims for some time has been to aggregate all life science preprints into one place online. In response to the recent announcement, there seemed to be confusion as to whether the proposed ‘Central Service’ should be a new preprint server or an aggregator. My reading is that the latter is the primary aim, but there is nothing to stop a successful proposal providng a mechanism to directly accept preprints from authors.

Going back to the list:

The first point is an existential question, and I was curious that the call from ASAPbio didn’t touch on it at all. Maybe my mathematics training from way back when makes me seek for a definition of everything. A definition of what constitutes a preprint seems rather important, especially when one wishes to aggregate preprints from various places: how to choose what to include and what to exclude. On the other hand, I’ve only seldom heard discussions of what does or should constitute a journal article. It seems that there’s a concensus that everyone sort of knows and that different publishers have different standards. That the same is true of preprints is perhaps no surprise, however the open access movement has often been criticised for having too many ill-defined definitions and it would be a shame for preprints to go the same way.

Moving on to businesss models, there is a contrast between probably the two most well-known preprint servers until now. arXiv is funded solely by supporting institutions as a charity. SSRN, on the other hand, ran for many years as a stand-alone enterprise, covering its costs by selling subscriptions, download fees, job advertisements, conference fees and so on. Last year SSRN was bought by Elsevier, a company that wouldn’t make an investment unless it was worthwhile, so there must be a commercial interest. Many baulk at the idea of preprints being in the hands of a profit-driven enterprise. At the same time, if there is potential revenue to be made from preprints, a sustainable, scalable model would be desirable. This is a point included as an aim in ASAPbio’s call: funding would be provided for five years, after which the service would be expected to find other revenue sources and become sustainable.

Data and formats feature surprisingly strongly in the ASAPbio call. XML conversion of preprints is a central requirement. This is not a technical formality and could put off a number of potentially interested parties, especially when considering the range of formats permitted by preprint servers. It calls for an innovative solution and some clever programming. Time will tell whether it can be delivered. It remains important, though. With the increasing volume of research output, researchers rely more on machine-based searches to deliver content to them and XML is clearly far superior to randomly formatted PDFs when it comes to text and data mining and for use as input to discovery tools.

Finally, how rapidly will preprints evolve? The citation dilemma I refer to above could become a key stumbling block for acceptance of preprints. Academic performance is measured by citations. If these are split between different versions of a preprint and a published version of the same paper, researcher could suffer, especially if preprints are not considered primary research material. In my view there needs to be a rapid expansion, acceptance and normalization of preprints. In other words, preprints need to find their niche and be recognized by funding bodies and promotion boards in addition to being used and recognized by a majority of researchers. Mathematics and physics, with long-time use of arXiv, probably have a contribution to make in this area. It remains to be seen whether other fields will benefit from their experience.

Gazing into a crystal ball is never an easy task, but if those involved with preprints can address the issues above there is a good chance that they will become a first stop for a great deal of research.

Welcome to Research Preprints

Welcome to Research Preprints. The aim is of this site is to be a collaborative space to discuss ideas about how preprints can contribute to dissemination of research and integrated into current practices.

And it needs your input.

I am looking for contributors. The platform should present views from researchers, those running preprint servers, publishers, librarians, indexing services, members of industries and services that rely on scholarly output and anyone else who feels they are a stakeholder. One-off and regular contributors are welcome. If you have a proposal for a post, please get in touch via the contact page.

I also invite you to comment on posts. Discussion should focus on the issues at hand and be constructive. Differing points of view are encouraged, but should be expressed with respect. Almost all participants in the discussion have the same goal: creation and dissemination of high quality research by the best possible means.

For those running preprint servers or aggregators, there is a page of this site dedicated to listing these services. Please provide a short description (up to 150 words).

The idea of putting research papers online before peer review is not new, however the last 12 months has seen an growth in interest from fields outside its traditional strongholds of maths, physics, business and economics.

Expansion in the adoption of preprints raises questions, though: What is a preprint, anyway? What kind of status should preprints have in relation to the peer-reviewed literature? Are preprints a stepping stone on the way to a peer-reviewed article or could they become a new way of assessing and testing research? How sceptical should a reader be of what they find in a preprint? What are the risks associated with making preliminary work widely available?

There are questions about implementation: Should there be minimum criteria for a preprint server? How can preprints be run sustainably and could they be financially independent? Is there a business model for preprints, and should there be?

There are also issues around acceptance: How do preprints fit into the research ecosystem? What benefits can authors take from preprints and do they increase or decrease the quality of reported research?

These are just a few questions this platform has been created to address and I am looking forward to finding out some of the answers.