What are the advantages of publishing a preprint?
There are many reasons why you may want to post your paper to a preprint server. One of the most popular motivations for publishing a preprint is the increased speed of publication compared to publication in a peer-reviewed journal. On a typical preprint server, the delay from submission to posting is 1-2 days, unlike the many months it can take to publish a paper in a traditional journal. This rapidity of publication has been particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it has enabled researchers to communicate their Covid-19 research quickly as the situation evolves.
Another advantage of rapid publication on a preprint server is laying claim to a novel discovery or finding. This is especially appealing to researchers in highly competitive fields, where waiting to publish an important finding in a peer-reviewed journal could mean getting scooped by a competitor. Preprints are a formal and citable part of the scientific record, and so can be used to establish your group as the first to have discovered or reported a highly novel finding.
For researchers in less competitive fields, publishing a preprint can offer the benefit of receiving valuable feedback prior to submitting your paper to a peer-reviewed journal. This sort of informal peer review can give you a window into how other researchers in the field perceive and interpret your study, and provides an opportunity to enhance and refine your paper before you submit it for formal peer review by a traditional journal.
At a more philosophical level, preprint publication is appealing to many researchers because it promotes the concept of open science, in which findings are accessible to all, with the goal of encouraging discovery instead of focusing on career progression or individual recognition. Similarly, while traditional journals are historically reluctant to publish negative results, the open nature of preprint publishing means that authors can quickly and easily post this type of data, thus creating a more complete scientific record.
What are the disadvantages of publishing a preprint?
Of course, in addition to the many advantages of preprints, there are a number of drawbacks as well. One disadvantage of preprint publication that has come to light during the Covid-19 pandemic is the complexity of conveying to the public the value that peer review adds to scientific publications. While open access to preprints can be seen as a considerable advantage, in several circumstances the press has reported findings from preprints as established facts, resulting in considerable confusion and sometimes outright errors in information subsequently conveyed to the public. As a result of this situation, it has become clear that both researchers and the press need to be clear about the difference between peer-reviewed and non–peer-reviewed studies, and how this difference affects the reliability and interpretation of the data. Most preprint servers now include a prominent note at the head of each article stating that it has not been peer-reviewed.
Another disadvantage of preprints is that some peer-reviewed journals will not consider or publish papers that have been posted previously on a preprint server. This is becoming less and less common as preprints increase in popularity, but it is still recommended that you check your target journal’s policies before publishing your paper to a preprint server. The SHERA/RoMEO list can help you quickly identify journals that do not accept submissions of papers that have already been published as a preprint.
Finally, if you believe that your paper reports a highly significant and/or novel finding that will be of considerable interest to a broad scientific audience, and anticipate publishing it in a very high-impact journal, it will likely be to your advantage to follow the traditional route of publication in a peer-reviewed journal, without posting a preprint. This is because papers that truly change the field and are of interest to readers even beyond the scientific community benefit from the experience and expertise of traditional journals in publicising the paper and presenting the findings in their best light to the appropriate audience. For example, top-tier journals typically offer in-house editing for both language usage and paper structure, can provide support designing graphical and video abstracts, and in some cases will organise press releases to promote the paper. In these cases, publication as a preprint could be somewhat premature and result in missing the chance to release the paper as part of a carefully timed and orchestrated plan.
Should I always publish a preprint?
So, given the advantages and disadvantages of reprint publication, is it always best to go with a preprint? Ultimately this decision comes down to your goals and beliefs as a research scientist. There is a strong movement in research toward preprints as a standard step in the publication process, because it emphasises open science and the concept of scientists as a community working together toward a common cause. In addition, new innovations in preprint publication, such as clarity regarding the non-peer-reviewed status of these publications, as well as the opportunity to get feedback and establish a claim to your data early in the publication process mean that, in many cases, preprint publication is a safe and useful option.
For researchers who are still uncertain about how to go about publishing a preprint, especially if you intend to later publish the paper in a traditional peer-reviewed journal, we recommend testing the waters by submitting to a journal that has an integrated preprint option. For example, Cell Press journals now offer to post your submitted manuscript on their own preprint server while it is under review. A similar option is provided by PLOS journals, which give you the option of having your submitted paper uploaded to bioRxiv on your behalf while the paper is under review. In both cases, this gives you the opportunity to assess the benefits of posting a preprint within the relative safety of a traditional journal and peer review process.
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