Peer-reviewed preprints: Benefits and limitations for young Indian researchers

In response to the evolving dynamics in scientific publishing, the Indian National Young Academy of Sciences (INYAS), in partnership with the International Science Council (ISC) and the Department of Science and Technology's Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR), conducted an online workshop to create awareness about peer-reviewed preprints and their potential benefits for young researchers, and to further the efforts to combat predatory publishing in India.

The scientific publishing industry is undergoing rapid transformations, and strong endorsements for Open Access (OA) are already reshaping the familiar publishing ecosystem. While more and more publishers open their content to readers, the costs are shifted onto researchers. At present, the Indian scientific community and many other researchers globally are often struggling to secure the necessary funds to get published.

The exploration of technical solutions to modernize scientific publishing has gained prominence. Initiatives like peer-reviewed preprints are gaining momentum. However, questions surrounding these infrastructures’ utility, benefits, and implications for research assessment and promotions still need to be addressed. Adapting these new models by funding agencies and institutions will play a critical role in their adoption.

The Normalization of Preprints

Drury, L. 2022. The normalization of preprints. International Science Council, Paris. France.

Despite the growing popularity of preprints, adoption rates vary widely across different regions. A recent study based on a survey indicates that researchers from the US and Europe are more familiar with and have higher preprint adoption rates than those from China and the rest of the world.

To examine Indian researchers’ experiences and attitudes toward pre-prints, INYAS launched a survey and organized a workshop in June 2023.

Leveraging Preprints and Preprint Peer Review to Revolutionize Scholarly Publishing

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In a keynote lecture, Ludo Waltman, Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University, presented a critique of the existing subscription-based journal system, highlighting its high costs, lack of transparency, inefficiency, and elaborated on four challenges faced by the scholarly publishing system:

  1. Lack of openness
  2. Delays and inefficiencies
  3. Excessive costs and inequities
  4. Problematic incentives

He advocated for a more viable and sustainable approach through open access, positing that pre-printing and pre-publishing present a more cost-efficient alternative to the prevailing system:

In academic publishing, researchers can use a preprint server to share their articles before submitting them to a journal. This early dissemination approach facilitates the receipt of feedback and reviews, enhancing the quality of the work before it is formally published. This methodology significantly addresses the open access predicament, as preliminary versions of the articles are freely accessible, eliminating any accessibility barriers, although not all journals are open to the practice.

Presently, there are preprint infrastructures that facilitate the sharing of preprints and allow peer reviews. Unlike traditional journal reviews, these assessments do not follow a binary approach of straightforward acceptance or rejection. Instead, the evaluation process is a more nuanced assessment that thoughtfully considers the strengths and weaknesses of the work. Importantly, this feedback is transparent and publicly available.

This model could potentially replace the existing system, where recognition predominantly stems from articles published in academic journals. Looking ahead, preprints, accompanied by their assessments, may become the primary means for researchers to receive acknowledgment for their work.

The journal eLife has implemented an open peer review system and a decision-making process that moves beyond a binary choice. Monitoring how the scholarly community responds and adapts to these modifications will be intriguing.

Cultural changes are needed for the widespread adoption of pre-printing, to foster necessary infrastructure and policy initiatives favouring preprints.

Leading the culture change towards Open Access

One way to conceptualize the shift towards more open practices in science, such as pre-printing, is through the pyramid model, introduced by Brian Nosek, a leading advocate of open science.

The first step is establishing the required infrastructure to support publishing preprints. There is good progress on this front, with services such as arXiv, bioRxiv, and chemRxiv freely available to researchers worldwide. These platforms have been reasonably successful in allowing researchers to share their work. However, providing the infrastructure is not sufficient.

The next step is to make it easy for researchers to engage in open practices. What strategies can we adopt to shift towards a preprint-centered approach in peer review processes? eLife, Review Commons, and Peer Community are examples of platforms facilitating pre-printing of the researchers’ work and engagement in peer reviews. This endeavour necessitates continuous effort and innovation, but it’s pivotal to advancing the preprint movement.

However, researchers must be recognized for their efforts in engaging in pre-printing and open peer review. The Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (COARA) and Plan S have declared commitments towards enhancing the recognition of peer-review and community-led developments.

Waltman also encouraged the workshop participants to contribute to advancing these developments:

Action 1 Preprint all your papers

Action 2 Publish your reviews

Action 3 Support preprint review initiatives

Action 4 Ask for recognition

Exploring avenues in scientific publishing: discussions and suggestions from the INYAS members

In-group discussions that followed brought to light several observations on challenges and opportunities in the current publishing system:

  • Open peer review can be advantageous, particularly when the contents of the reviewer reports are made public while respecting the privacy of reviewers’ identities due to potential conflict of interest. This approach helps distribute the reviewing workload and allows experts to review papers within their specific areas of expertise.
  • The practice of preprint publishing is subject-specific: in physics and mathematics, it is customary to publish the preprints beforehand to invite comments and suggestions, but in applied areas such as agriculture, biomedical, or other fundamental areas like chemistry and biology, sharing preprints is seen as risky due to potential scooping.
  • Preprints are not considered for promotions, funding, and appraisal. However, preprints usher productivity in some situations as this is a medium of quick dissemination of information among peers.
  • At the same time, the papers already available in the public domain may face challenges in getting accepted in a journal. The journals that run on subscription models may have severe reservations about publishing preprinted work.
  • Misconduct regarding reviewing should also be considered, as anybody can post harsh or biased comments, which might affect the spirit and zeal of many early-career researchers. 
  • Suggestions to popularize preprint services include uploading preprints only when the manuscript is ready for publication and promoting the concept of overlay journals. We must encourage young researchers to adopt innovative publication methods and foster collaborations with scholars worldwide to implement new publishing systems.
  • In the context of India, the new University Grant Commission (UGC) guidelines allow preprints to be considered for awarding doctoral degrees. Existing policies governing the publication system need to be revised, accounting for the value of Open Access, and peer-reviewed preprints, which allow wider dissemination of research findings while maintaining rigorous peer review.
  • A shift towards a more inclusive and transparent publishing model can promote accessibility and accelerate the progress of scientific knowledge, but we need to address the challenges of educating the public and researchers about the limitations of preprints.

Current status of preprint publications by Indian researchers

Sridhar Gutam shed light on the current state of preprint publishing in India, offering insights into why it lags behind global standards and suggesting potential measures to close this gap.

Out of 931,779 preprints published globally, only 775 are affiliated with Indian researchers. The low uptake of preprint usage may result from entrenched traditions prioritizing peer-reviewed journal publications, concerns about career advancement and evaluation, potential intellectual property issues, limited awareness of preprint servers, and a preference for peer review before public sharing.

India needs to put systematic and concerted efforts to increase the usage of preprints if it wants to significantly enhance its contribution to the global open science movement and foster innovation in scientific research.

List of workshop participants

Aditya Sadhanala (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore); Akshai K A Seetharam (Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati); Ankur Gupta (Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur); Aravind K Rengan (Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad); Arnab Datta (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay); Atul Dixit (Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar); Budhaditya Mukherjee (Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur); Chirashree Roychowdhuri (Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur); Dibyendu Chatterjee (ICAR-National Rice Research Institute, Cuttack); Dwijendra Pandey (Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee); Jai Prakash (Aligarh Muslim University); Kalpana Nagpal (Amity Institute of Pharmacy, Noida); Kiran Bala (Indian Institute of Technology Indore); Kirtimaan Syal (BITS Pilani, Hyderabad); Malay Bhattacharyya (Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata); Manik Banik (S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata); Mauricio Contreras (The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich); Meher Wan (CSIR – National Institute of Science Communication and Policy Research), Moumita Koley (DST- Centre for Policy Research, IISc, Bangalore); Moumita Samanta (Sanofi),; Muthamilarasan M (University of Hyderabad); Neeldhara Misra (Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar); Neha Sardana (Indian Institute of Technology Ropar); Nitin Sharma (CSIR- National Geophysical Research Institute); Nishant Chakravorty (Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur); Pranjal Chandra (Indian Institute of Technology (BHU), Varanasi) Priyanka Bajaj (National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Hyderabad); Rajib Deb (ICAR-National Research Centre on Pig, Guwahati), Raju Mukherjee (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati); Rajendra S Dhaka (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi); Rakesh K Pilania (Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research Centre, Chandigarh); Ramendra Sundar  Dey (Institute of Nano Science and Technology, Mohali); Rishemjit Kaur (CSIR-Central Scientific Instruments Organisation); Rohit Ranjan Shahi (Central University of South Bihar, Gaya); Rong Li (Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University); Sai Santosh K Raavi (Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad); Sanket Goel (BITS Pilani, Hyderabad), Santanu Mukherjee (Shoolini University); Shamin Padalkar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai); Shib Sankar Ganguli (CSIR- National Geophysical Research Institute); Shobhna Kapoor (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay); Shweta Yadav (Central University of Jammu); Sonu Gandhi (National Institute of Animal Biotechnology Hyderabad); Sriparna Chatterjee (CSIR- Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology); Sudhanshu Shekhar Singh (Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur); Sufyan Ashhad (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore); Veda Krishnan (ICAR-Indian Agriculture Research Institute, New Delhi); Vikas Jain (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal); Vinayak Kamble (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram).

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