Research Preprints

Discussing early research outputs

Whither preprints?

June 15, 2017 mrittman

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.


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.

Open Preprints

May 19, 2017 mrittman

One of the things that most surprised me when putting together the list of preprint servers for this site is that a large number don’t explicitly list any licensing or copyright information, and some routinely use very restrictive licenses. Coming from a publishing background, this was very surprising.

Subscription publishing relies on content ownership and enforcement of strict copyright conditions: If the publisher doesn’t own the copyright, the articles could be distributed by anyone. The open access movement turned this logic on its head. Someone (often the authors or their funder) pays for value added services including peer review, copy editing, hosting and distribution, but anyone is allowed to distribute the final article. The copyright and licensing terms are among the most significant features distinguishing open access and legacy publishers.

Licensing for open access is very important. Most open access publishers have gravitated towards the creative commons licenses, and in particular CC BY. Although there are differing views, simply being free to read is generally accepted as insufficient for open access. It also requires rights for reuse, in whole or in part. This means that for the strictest definitions of open access, not even all creative commons licenses are sufficient.

The preprint paradigm developed before open access and at the very beginning of the internet, when licensing conditions were not such a contentious area. As a result, many preprints were not, and still aren’t, open access compatible. If no terms are stated, as with a number of preprints I’ve seen, the default is an all rights reserved license, which means distribution and reuse are not permitted.

For authors, the lack of open access for preprints doesn’t matter much and I don’t believe many know or care a great deal about it. I have never received a request at to use license other than CC BY for a preprint, and only on about three occasions in the last four years for open access journals (over about 70,000 articles). Most authors I speak to like the ideals of open access, even if they have issues with how it works in practice. It is the rest of the research community (ironically including many of the same people) that stands to lose out. Data mining, especially, becomes a legal minefield if reuse rights are not clear. Use of figures in lectures, blogs and journal articles is problematic. Simply sharing a copy with a few colleagues could be illegal. The tragic recent case of Diego Gomez shows that this is not just a hypothetical argument. The goal for preprints to widely disseminate work is limited by the lack of a clear license. Even more, if the increasing use of preprints has aspirations to be seen as part of the push for open science, the current haphazard approach to licensing isn’t going to work.

Some have justified offering a range of licenses on the grounds that it make preprints more inclusive and the time will come for moving forward on this issue. I think this overestimates the risks and underestimates the benefits of open access, and I am yet to see a timescale for the transition. Others seem to be unaware of the issue: I recently saw a definition declaring that all preprints are open access. To reach the full potential of preprints, they should be in step with open access and aim to be fully integrated into the growing calls for open and transparent science. At the very least, I would challenge those advocating for the use of preprints to decide which side of the fence they sit on.

Reflections from the Open Science Conference 2017

March 24, 2017 mrittman

I spent the first part of this week at the Open Science Conference in Berlin. As with many conference, it was a great opportunity to step back and take a different view of things away from the frenetic everyday tasks. I met a lot of interesting people and came away with more questions and ideas than answers. One of the things on my mind, of course, was preprints and how they fit into the current view of open science.

The overall impression I came away with was that open science is at a stage where no-one is quite sure what it is, but they think it’s a good idea. Indeed, the first question of the feedback questionnaire asked for a definition of open science. At the same time, with the assumption that open science and its constituent elements are a good thing, no-one is making a clear case for this and there was little that would persuade sceptics.

For better or worse, the organisors majored on a few aspects of open science: open data was a strong theme, open education resources had a lot of air time and I attended a session on open peer review. My favourite session was the one on alternative metrics and showed that the discussion in this area is moving on to the identification of more useful metrics.

So how did preprints fare? Actually, not so well. Preprints feature in the open science monitor from the EU commission ( and Niko Kriegskorte’s method of not reviewing unless a preprint exists was mentioned. There were also comments around the need to make research available as soon as possible and the usual gripes about slow publishers and citation metric addiction.

In conversations, also, there was general support for preprints but without a great deal of enthusiasm, and scepticism that new fields will take up preprinting on a regular basis just yet. I don’t have a good answer to why this is. Maybe preprints are simply not on the agenda. In Europe there are few advocates for preprints: just search for #preprint on Twitter and you will see that most of the activity takes place when America is online. Perhaps it is because most resources seem to be pointed at open data, which is a huge and important challenge.  It could also be that it is seen as an area that is established in some disciplines and growth will take care of itself.

Preprints seem to offer a relatively cheap and simple way of furthering the cause of open science. Estimates of putting a preprint online are in the range of 10 Euros (or USD) per paper, compared to 5000 US dollars for journal publications. Preprints also offer:

  • Rapid access to research, months or sometimes years in advance;
  • Transparency, with open review possible in a context where reviewers simply advise the authors without the judgment of an editorial decision looming in the background;
  • Papers that are free to read and often fully open access. This can help to circumvent paywalls and copy right transfer issues;
  • Putting control of reporting research into the hands of the researchers producing the work.

How can preprints start to sell themselves better, even within the conversation about open science? First, we need to make the case for the benefits of preprints and lower the barriers for participation as low as possible. Second, there needs to be better links to more established and discussed areas of open science, especially integration with data publishing. Those operating preprint platforms need to look at which standards and technologies can be integrated to link with other parts of the open science agenda.

I think the previous paragraph applies equally to how open science needs to embed itself into current research practice. To make open science and preprints the norm, there needs to be a convincing case that some extra effort brings tangible benefits. I’m hoping, at least, that at the next edition of the conference there will be a session dedicated to preprints.