Preprints are rapidly expanding in the scholarly publishing world, but they do have real limitations. For example, they are not peer reviewed, nor are they tied to impact factors. But there are also some perceived limitations, such as the fear that your research might get ‘scooped’ if you post your work as a preprint before publishing it in a journal.
Here we’ll give you a brief background on preprints, and then we’ll discuss these real and perceived limitations. By the end of this article, you should have a more academic understanding of preprints and their limitations. It should also address concerns about the misperceptions around preprints.
A preprint is a version of a scientific manuscript that is made available to the public prior to peer review at a journal. Posting your article as a preprint allows other scientists to view, discuss, and comment on your findings immediately without you having to wait for completion of the lengthy peer review process.
Preprints are becoming increasingly popular in the scientific community, especially among early career researchers. More than 140,000 preprints have been posted on Research Square alone at the time of this writing. Still, some researchers may be hesitant to post their work on a preprint server for anyone to examine before it has been formally accepted in peer-reviewed journals.
“My target peer-reviewed journal might not accept preprints”
Many, but not all, scientific publications allow preprint posting for manuscripts submitted to their journals for peer review and publication. Manuscripts that have been posted as preprints are now accepted by all open access journals.
Over the last decade, most journals have also made the decision to accept manuscript submissions that were previously posted as preprints. Some publishers, such as BMJ and Springer Nature, not only accept preprints but encourage authors to submit preprints while their work goes through peer review.
However, because of the wide variation in journal policies, it is important to check with your specific target peer-reviewed journal to determine whether preprints are accepted.
Journals also have different policies in terms of exactly what they will accept. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) will only accept preprints posted on a not-for-profit preprint server. JAMA Network and APA publications specify that the submitted manuscript must add meaningful new information beyond what’s already present in the preprint.
Current preprint policies are overviewed here.
“My research could be ‘scooped’ if I post it as a preprint”
As stated by Review Commons Managing Editor Sara Monaco, “The main concern of authors who are hesitant to adopt preprints is the fear of being scooped.” “Scooping” refers to the circumstance in which work is published by a researcher (or research team) before a rival team can publish their work on the same topic. This particular concern as it relates to preprints is unfounded.
In response to this issue, several publishers now provide “scooping protection” for preprints. For EMBO Press journals, this protection applies from the day a manuscript is posted on a recognized preprint server. During the period between the preprint’s posting and peer review, EMBO editors do not consider manuscripts from other authors reporting on similar findings as a criterion for rejection.
It is also important to note that you will receive a digital object identifier, or DOI, when your article is accepted on a preprint server. Thus, there is a permanent and public record of the publication of your work as a preprint, including a timestamp.
“I might get negative public comments”
Because of the greater exposure preprints receive, posting your work as a preprint means that you are more likely to receive comments from other researchers. These comments will appear publicly on the preprint platform, and on occasion, they may be quite negative.
Although negative comments can hurt, remember that receiving such comments is like “pre” peer-review.
After taking the comments into account and making revisions, you may end up publishing a study of higher quality than you would have otherwise. This effectively allows you to improve your study before sending it out to a journal when you revise your paper taking the comments into account.
It is possible that the public comments you receive on your preprint may be taken into account by peer reviewers at your target journal. Regardless of any official journal or manuscript policies, it might be hard for a reviewer or editor to “unsee” any opinion they have read about your study.
Remember that unlike a published journal article, preprints can be updated. Therefore, if your manuscript gets a negative comment, you have the opportunity to respond constructively. You can include additional data and analyses to satisfy any criticisms.
“A preprint isn’t peer-reviewed”
Many researchers would agree that the peer review process improves the quality of a manuscript and promotes its reliability and reproducibility. A preprint does not go through a thorough review. There is no guarantee that the study was designed appropriately or that the conclusions reached are adequately supported by the data presented.
That said, it is in the author’s best interest to publish studies of appropriate rigor. Posting erroneous information or potentially misleading statements in a preprint can undermine the work and damage the author's credibility.
Researchers know that there are significant hurdles to achieving peer-reviewed publication, and the time it takes for publishing can be a major concern. In fact, the median review time at Nature increased from 85 days to more than 150 days between 2006 and 2016.
At PLoS ONE, it rose from 37 to 125 days over roughly the same time period (Powell, 2016). A recent study showed that median times-to-publication now range from 79 to 323 days (Runde, 2021).
Posting a preprint prior to the journal peer review process means information in that paper will be immediately publicly available. Authors can obtain valuable feedback on their papers from a wider audience compared to a few peer reviewers.
Again, reviewers can view public comments and researcher responses. This can help to make the subsequent formal review process more efficient and result in an improved final published manuscript.
“My preprint isn’t attached to an impact factor (or other reliable measure of quality)”
The journal Impact Factor is often a key consideration when it comes time to decide where to publish your research. In general, higher impact factors are regarded as indicators that the journal publishes higher quality work.
It is very advantageous if you manage to get your paper into a high impact factor journal. It serves as an endorsement from the community that your work is worthy of a higher level of scrutiny.
That said, the true value of the impact factor is questionable. Remember that your research results are the same no matter which journal you choose to publish in. If your research is strong, it will speak for itself.
With the help of Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus, the keywords you include in your paper will help your work find its way to the right people. In that regard, it doesn’t matter which journal you publish your work in.
The most important thing is getting your work out into the public domain. From there, you can let other researchers in your field decide how important your work is based on whether they decide to cite it or not.
Researchers can also waste much time trying to get their papers into high impact journals. It is not uncommon to have a paper under review for six months or more before it ultimately gets rejected.
There can be multiple rounds of feedback and lots of back-and-forth with the reviewers and the editors, only to end ultimately in rejection. Any amount of time that the paper is not being shared among researchers, influencing the field, or having an impact is wasted time.
Some researchers may aim for the journal with the highest impact factor. And if their paper gets rejected, they try for a lower impact factor. If it gets rejected again, they aim lower, and so on until it’s finally published.
When so much time can be wasted in the publication process, ask yourself if a “high” impact factor is worth waiting for.
“My preprints can be used for misinformation”
With preprints that are posted without formal peer review, there is a risk of weak studies receiving disproportionate attention. Certainly, there is the potential that a weak yet “flashy” preprinted article could get overblown in the media, while good articles get ignored. This can lead to misinformation and confusion when these studies are shared in the public.
Preprint repositories know the risks of misinformation. Many have been proactive in warning audiences that the content is not peer-reviewed and is therefore unverified. Several preprint servers advise readers to use or interpret the content with caution, direct them to the latest versions of a paper, and, if a preprint is withdrawn, state the reasons why.
Despite concerns regarding the quality of preprints, many preprint platforms, including our own Research Square, perform basic screening checks to ensure the relevance and general quality of the content. These checks are often performed by researchers with content expertise.
On bioRxiv and medRxiv, two popular preprint servers, the basic scientific value of submitted papers is assessed by principal investigators (on bioRxiv) and healthcare professionals (on medRxiv). Papers are also scanned for ethics committee approval, trial registration, informed consent, and conflicts of interest.
Video: Addressing Concerns about Preprints by Michele Avissar-Whiting, PhD
So why preprint, then?
If you’re like many scientists, you may be considering posting your paper as a preprint, but you might have no prior experience doing so.
The number of preprint servers has increased, and an increasing number of scientists are also choosing to post their papers as preprints. Indeed, researchers posted more preprints to the bioRxiv server in 2018 alone than in the four previous years.
Posting your paper as a preprint has many advantages in terms of credit, feedback, visibility, transparency, and speed.
Submitting a research manuscript soon? Research Square, offers a variety of pre-submission and post-publication services to ensure your research is of the highest quality.
Powell, K. (2016). Does it take too long to publish research? Nature 530, 148–51.