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Understanding and using preprint servers

Understanding and using preprint servers


Preprint servers are online archives of papers that have not yet been subjected to peer review. Most preprint servers enable researchers to upload draft versions of a manuscript prior to submitting it to a more traditional peer-reviewed journal. While papers submitted to preprint servers are relatively informal compared to traditionally published papers, they are typically formatted similarly – for example, they contain all of the sections that a traditionally published paper does, as well as figures and tables – for ease of reading.


While papers posted to preprint servers are not subjected to peer review, the vast majority of preprint servers will perform basic screens before the paper goes live; for example, the manuscript may be screened for text plagiarism. Importantly, papers posted on preprint servers are freely available to all readers, and as such preprint servers can be considered an ‘open access’ form of publication. In addition, papers posted to preprint servers can be updated or revised after they are originally posted, and all copies of the paper are maintained and archived on the site, to maintain the integrity of the publication record.



Advantages of using a preprint server

One of the most attractive aspects of posting a paper to a preprint server for many researchers is the speed of publication; typically, the basic screening process that occurs before the paper is published on a preprint server’s website takes one to two days, in contrast to the many months that it can take to go through the peer review process with a journal. This means that your results can be disseminated rapidly to the wider scientific community, which in theory can accelerate the pace of scientific research.


The rapidity of this form of publication can also be important for establishing your group as the first to invent something or make a novel discovery. Reporting such a discovery in a paper posted to a preprint server means that this claim is now part of the public record, and can be used as evidence if, for example, there is a dispute over patenting a technique that another group claims to have developed or discovered.


Some preprint servers allow commenting on papers, which means that there is the potential to receive valuable feedback on your study and paper prior to submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal. In addition, some funding agencies permit preprints to be cited in grant applications, which may strengthen your application and help demonstrate your expertise or qualifications for performing the study proposed in your application. 


In addition to the advantages to individual researchers, posting your paper to a preprint server can also be advantageous to the wider scientific community. Due to the open access nature of preprint servers, posting your paper on one can not only increase the speed of publication, but also make the paper available to a wider range of scientific readers than may have had access to the paper if it were published in a traditional journal that requires a subscription. In this sense, it can be argued that publishing a preprint serves the greater good by making data available rapidly and freely to all researchers.


Another advantage of publishing on a preprint server is that, because this form of publication is not competitive, it can promote the publication of data that might otherwise have been lost, such as negative results. While it can be difficult to publish negative results in traditional journals, it is important that the scientific community have access to this type of information, to avoid duplication of effort and provide a more complete picture of the state of the field.



Disadvantages of using a preprint server

While posting your paper to a preprint server can help you claim a discovery or invention first, some researchers worry that posting their data too early could lead to getting scooped; for example, one of your competitors may read your preprint, replicate the experiments and manage to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal first. For this reason, it is important to consider the main goal of posting to a preprint server. If your primary objective is to establish a claim, then later (peer-reviewed) publication by another group may not damage your goals. However, if it is most important to you to ultimately publish the results in a high-impact peer-reviewed journal, then you may need to think carefully about the timing (and usefulness) of publishing on a preprint server.


Another potential drawback of posting to a preprint server is that, because there is no peer review process for this type of publication, there is a risk of unintentionally spreading incorrect or misleading information that might otherwise have been noted and addressed during peer review. Of course, carefully reviewing and ensuring the soundness of your own data prior to posting them on a preprint server can help avoid this, but mistakes do happen. For this reason, it is also advisable to interpret preprints with caution, as the data that researchers post on these servers have not been subjected to the same rigorous level of review that papers published in more traditional journals typically are.


Finally, it is important to note that some peer-reviewed journals will not consider papers that have already been published on a preprint server. In order to avoid hurting your chances of publishing in a more traditional journal after posting to a preprint server, be sure to carefully check your target journal’s policies before doing so. You may wish to consult the SHERPA/RoMEO list, which can help you identify journals that do not accept submissions that have already been published on a preprint server.



Common preprint servers

The most well-known preprint server is arXiv, which provides open access to preprints from a wide range of disciplines, from quantitative biology to electrical engineering. Since arXiv was launched in the early 1990s, a variety of more field-specific preprint servers have also been introduced, such as:

  • BioRxiv - dedicated to the biological sciences
  • medRxiv - publishes papers in the medical sciences
  • PsyArXiv - devoted to the psychological sciences
  • SocArXiv - publishes papers from the social sciences
  • engrXiv - dedicated to the engineering sciences
  • chemRXiv - devoted to the chemical sciences


There are also a few biology-specific preprint servers that are no longer operating; specifically, PeerJ, which was active from 2013 to 2019, and Nature Precedings, which was active from 2007 to 2012. The short lifespan of these two preprint servers is not entirely surprising. While preprint publishing is very common in fields such as computer science and physics, historically there has been less interest in this form of publication from researchers in the biological sciences. 


It is also worth mentioning F1000 Research, a journal that operates on a post-publication peer review model. In this model, papers are published on the journal’s website after a brief check (similar to that performed for a preprint server), and then reviewers are invited to review the paper and post their feedback, along with a recommendation to approve, approve with recommendations, or not approve the article. Papers posted to this site that have not been reviewed are considered preprints, and can, with the approval of the journal, be submitted elsewhere.



More information about preprint servers

The use of preprint servers in the biological sciences and other fields is still evolving, as publishers learn what researchers want and need out of this form of publication and how preprints fit into the existing publication environment. If you are considering posting your paper to a preprint server, but are still uncertain about whether it is a good fit for your paper, you may wish to consult the discussion document from the Committee on Publication Ethics. This document provides a comprehensive overview of the advantages and disadvantages of preprint servers, particularly from the perspective of researchers in the biomedical sciences, and presents a perspective on the current challenges and opportunities that this form of publishing offers to researchers.



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