A preprint is an article that has been published prior to peer review, typically on a preprint server. Authors may choose to publish their work as a preprints for a variety of reasons. For example, publishing as a preprint can help accelerate the rate of the research process by enabling other researchers to have access to your data and findings earlier than they would if you waited to publish in a more traditional journal. Another example is researchers working in highly competitive fields, for whom publishing quickly in a preprint format can help ensure that they establish a claim to a particular finding or discovery before a competitor.
In both of these cases, though, as you may guess, the authors are likely to want to publish the same work in a more traditional format in a peer-reviewed journal. Of course, this raises the question of what happens to the preprint once a definitive version of the manuscript is accepted by a traditional journal. Some authors may even ask whether the preprint needs to be removed or taken down from the preprint server prior to publication in a traditional journal.
What happens when I publish a preprint in a traditional journal?
The good news is that most journals will happily consider, review and publish papers that have already been published as preprints. This can be the case if the work has changed substantially since its first publication or even if the definitive version is virtually identical to the preprint version. This is because preprints are considered a permanent part of the scientific publication record. They are assigned DOI numbers, and can be referenced and cited in papers, grant applications, and more. When the definitive paper is eventually published, other researchers will simply begin citing the most recent version of the paper instead of the previously published, non-peer-reviewed, preprint. However, the preprint itself is not taken down or removed from the preprint server; instead, it remains published and available for anyone who wishes to read the earlier version of the manuscript.
Importantly, most traditional journals will clearly link to or cite the preprint that an article is based on once it is published. This is to maintain the continuity and integrity of the scientific record and to provide readers with a complete picture of the progress and evolution of the work. Some journals will do this automatically, especially if the paper was submitted directly from a preprint server (more on this below), while in other cases it is the author’s responsibility to cite their own preprint and alert the publishing journal of the need to link to the earlier version.
On the other side, the preprint server that the preprint was published on will also link to the definitive version of the article to ensure that all readers can quickly and easily find the most recent, peer-reviewed version of the work. Again, in many cases this is handled automatically, but if not (for example, if you choose to submit your work to a traditional journal independently, rather than through the preprint server) it is best practice to alert the preprint server of your new publication so that they can specifically insert or update the appropriate link.
How do specific journals or publishers handle submission of preprints?
Journal and publisher policies regarding preprints and how they are handled can vary widely; and these practices are constantly evolving. In the previous section we discussed general principles regarding what happens when an article you published as a preprint is accepted for publication in a traditional journal, in this section we will talk about specific publishers’ practices.
Taylor & Francis, one of the largest scientific publishers, specifically state that they will consider papers for publication even if they have already been published in preprint format. As a matter of policy, they ask authors to ensure that any preprint that is ultimately published in one of their journals as a definitive peer-reviewed article be updated to state this clearly on the original preprint server. In this case, you will need to be proactive to ensure that this is done, but the publisher clearly feels that it is a priority to maintain and update preprints as part of the scientific record.
Springer Nature, another major scientific publisher, recently took the step from passively supporting authors who wish to publish on preprint servers to actively encouraging preprint publication. Their newly expressed preprint policy addresses detailed concerns such as license types and speaking to the press about pre-peer-review articles, and clarifies that posting and maintaining preprints is a priority for them as part of the scientific publishing field.
Interestingly, Cell Press has recently begun offering its own version of preprints through a collection called ‘Sneak Peek’. This tool gives authors of articles currently under review at the main Cell Press journals the option of having their submitted manuscript published early on the Cell website; so it’s essentially a preprint server hosted by the publisher who may (or may not) eventually publish the definitive version of the paper after it has been peer reviewed. This potentially leads not only to publication of a preprint and a definitive article by the same publisher, but also helps authors who are less confident about using preprint servers take advantage of the preprint option in the context of a well-established, traditional publisher.
PLOS offers a similar opt-in option that is slightly less ‘customized’ than the Cell Press option: they offer the authors of every paper that is submitted for consideration the choice to have PLOS upload a copy to bioRxiv on their behalf. Again, this results in a preliminary version of your paper being published on a preprint server, with the peer-reviewed version ultimately being published by PLOS. This relationship goes both ways, as it is also possible to submit your preprint to PLOS journals directly from bioRxiv and medRxiv. This tool not only makes it easy to submit your paper, but also helps the preprint servers and publishers keep track of each version of the manuscript and link them appropriately.
There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule. The most well-known is that of the New England Journal of Medicine, which, while not having a formal policy on publishing work that has already been published as a preprint, has expressed reservations about this practice in the past. However, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the journal has recognised the importance of sharing critical healthcare-related news as quickly as possible, and has thus articulated a COVID-specific policy that explicitly encourages publication of all papers related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus on a preprint server so as to make the data publically accessible.
If you are unsure about the wisdom of publishing your paper as a preprint prior to submitting it to a traditional journal, we recommend verifying that your target journal accepts preprints. To do this, you can consult the relevant Wikipedia page or search for your target journal in the Sherpa Romeo database.