Because preprint posting effectively decouples the communication of research from its assessment and professional scrutiny, it allows scientists to talk to the media about their work much earlier than would have traditionally been advisable. The growing ubiquity of preprints has been accompanied by a surge in media interest and reporting around these early research communications. This surge was spurred along markedly by the recent embracement of the medium among scientists during the novel coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019. Free access to this content has made it a natural target for reporters eager to keep up with the latest breakthroughs. Rapid and open communication with minimal barriers is the preprint’s raison d'être, but this shift in the distribution timeline ahead of formal peer review means preprints should be approached and discussed with particular diligence.
At Research Square, preprint submissions are assessed by in-house staff for the presence of appropriate disclosures and permissions, ethical and privacy issues, and potential risks to public health. Papers that don’t meet these minimum standards or are deemed too risky to release before peer review are not posted to our platform. While far from perfunctory, this screen does not involve adjudication on the quality of the research or the veracity or even the viability of its conclusions. Thus, the conclusions of a preprint should not be broadcasted by the media with the same level of confidence as a peer-reviewed article, and description of the study as a preliminary output that has not yet been peer reviewed should be explicit.
A reporter covering a preprint should take extra care to consult with an independent subject matter expert who has specific knowledge in the discipline (i.e., a virologist for a paper involving the structure of a virus, an epidemiologist for a paper that explores incidence of a disease in a population, etc.). As with any peer-reviewed paper, a preprint should be read in full and limitations carefully noted for inclusion in the piece. Statements obtained from authors should be accompanied by basic constraints that would likely be inferred by a scientist but which are critical for appropriate contextualization by a non-scientific audience. The goal of any scientific journalist should be to inform, not to alarm, so avoidance of sensational headlines is advised.
A preprint, unlike most journal articles, is a living document that places science’s self-correcting nature in full public view. Versioning is supported by our platform and others, so coverage of a study should always be based on the latest version available and its citation should make this clear. Readers who are sincerely interested can watch for developments such as comments, informal reviews, and, of course, a link to a published version of the paper in a journal. This transparent self correction - an honest reflection of the scientific process itself - also means that withdrawal of a study may occur more frequently and much more rapidly in the realm of preprints compared with that of published journal articles. While it’s impossible to know whether a study (preprint or peer-reviewed) will eventually be discredited, seeking reliable input into the quality of a study and adhering to basic standards of integrity, as outlined above, should be considered minimum criteria for responsible scientific journalism.
If you are a reporter and have questions regarding a Research Square preprint, please contact [email protected] for further guidance.