Knowledge delayed is knowledge denied

Preprints are gaining ground in many different scientific disciplines. Jenice Goveas looks at the potential advantages for scientists and for the progress of science.

Scholarly communication involves the creation, publication, dissemination and preservation of research outputs to ensure reproducibility for future use. Traditional modes of scholarly communication largely include peer-reviewed research journals, monographs, books, reviews and working papers. The painful gestation period of traditional publishing – before a research paper is peer reviewed and finally published – often becomes a bottleneck for the progress of science, particularly in emerging fields that demand quick dissemination of knowledge. In addition, commercial publishers lock knowledge behind heavy paywalls. This has negative ethical implications of exclusivity, against the ethos of science, which is meant to be universal.

The pain of publication and the birth of preprints: 

The increasing demand for fast, openly distributed and reusable modes of scholarly communication started right from the early 20th century. In 1961, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Information Exchange Groups (IEG) to accelerate the progress of science. Scientists would mail non-peer reviewed, verbatim information called “memo” to the NIH, whose office would then post copies of it to every member of the IEG. Memos circulated by post thus became the precursor to preprints. Preprint may be defined as complete written description of a research output that authors are willing to make public, and is ready for submission to a peer reviewed journal. This includes submissions under review, or those that have been rejected. Towards the later part of the century, the timely innovation of ‘preprint repositories’ leveraged the digital revolution to offer a solution to issues of affordability and delay in dissemination of knowledge and evidence.

In 1991, the first preprint server, ArXiv, was created and over the years was followed by several subject specific ones such as MedRxiv, BioRxiv, ChemRxiv etc. covering most natural and social sciences. In addition there are also region specific repositories that include SciELO for Latin America, Europe PMC, AfricArXiv and others. With the launch of Jxiv In March 2022, Japan became the latest country to open an online preprint repository, in order to boost international exposure to the country’s research. However, three months later, it was observed that Japanese researchers don’t seem to be enthralled by it and so far only about 40 papers have been uploaded. For a country like Japan, whose research output is among the highest in the world, this calls for serious attention to raising awareness about Open Access and the need to include more researchers as torchbearers. Preprints should become an integral part of the lives of researchers in order to ensure timely and universal dissemination of knowledge.

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The normalization of preprints

An ISC Occasional paper by Luke Drury.

The #NewNorm in Scholarly Publishing:

In an ISC Occasional Paper, “The Normalization of Preprints”, Luke Drury dissects the issues around preprints and mentions five clear reasons why preprints are advantageous and should be made the norm:

  1. Rapid and efficient communication: Drury cites a study by Xie et al which reveals that preprints make papers become accessible 7 months to 2.25 years earlier than their peer-reviewed counterparts.
  2. ‘Record of Versions’: Traditional publishing only displays a static and immutable version of record that cannot be corrected. However, preprint servers enable uploading several versions of the paper which is invaluable information to future historians of science.
  3. Overlay Journals: The absence of peer review is now made up by hybrid systems like ‘overlay journals’ that offer a peer review service for preprints.
  4. Bibliodiversity: Emergence of regional preprint repositories such as SciELO and AfricArXiv have increased visibility of research in national languages, addressing local issues. This is in sync with the Helsinki initiative on multilingualism in scholarly communication
  5. Accessibility at zero marginal cost: Drury observes that since anyone with internet can gain access to the data uploaded, it gives more scope for interoperability. In fact, papers with a preprint version attract on average three times more citations than those without.

Some scientists are skeptical, fearing that preprints could lead to misinformation, as they lack the value afforded by the process of peer review. Yet ‘overlay’ journals with their open evaluation offer a solution to the opaque editorial selection that is characteristic of traditional journal publications. Open evaluation is a valuable learning tool as it allows readers to gain more context around the articles by increasing their understanding and in turn encouraging them to validate and shape their opinions. The reviews can thus be more constructive for the larger progress of science. For example, Sciety is a free online application that allows anyone to access to preprints and to share additional information that was limited by traditional publication.

Nurturing Preprints for an inclusive future:

Once up on the preprint server, authors can simultaneously submit the same paper to a peer-review journal. Today, preprint repositories also house datasets and archive different versions of articles so that an Author Accepted Manuscript can become Green Open Access. The Global South has taken keen interest in this route, with Latin America leading in efficient publicly funded scholar-led publishing infrastructures for holistic open access scholarly communication. Several attempts are being made to make preprints the norm. Iratxe Puebla of ASAPbio – one of the organizers of a recent workshop on ‘Research assessment frameworks in India: Assessing the role of preprints’ – believes that “preprints align to calls for research assessment to move away from journal-level metrics and thus [to] evaluating the science for the science”. 

Within the biomedical and life science fields, preprints are a relatively new phenomenon. However, the pandemic has accelerated their relevance. The number of biomedical preprints has been steadily rising in response to the threat from COVID-19 that warranted rapid communication of clinical trial results. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that preprints likely saved lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the argument that they should become the new norm. With science, technology, and their associated challenges evolving at an unprecedented rate, and as more research is becoming time-sensitive, it is necessary to have access to knowledge in real-time. Preprints play a key role in this direction.  


The future of scientific publishing

Find out more about the ISC project exploring the role of publishing in the scientific enterprise, asking how the scholarly publishing system can maximize benefit to global science and to wider audiences for scientific research.


Image by fabio on Unsplash

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