Preprints are opening new doors in academia

Academic journals aren’t always the first place scholars go to disseminate their research anymore. Today many are turning to preprint servers, or online databases of manuscripts posted by scholars prior to formal publication. With more scholars embracing digital methods of finding and engaging with research, preprint usage has been on the rise and there are now preprint repositories for various disciplines including arXiv, for math, physics and other sciences; BioArXiv, for biology; SocArXiv, for social sciences; and more.

The increase in preprint use, along with scholars publicly coming together to endorse preprints, such as those at the 2016 ASAPbio meeting, is forcing journal publishers to address the place of preprints in the publishing landscape. Despite “preprint” sounding like something reserved for pre-publication, “preprint” servers and published journals don’t have to be as separate as their names suggest. Many journals are now allowing and even encouraging scholars to publish preprint versions of their works in addition to formal articles to make their research Green OA. Authors can link their preprint articles to the DOI of the formal published version to connect the two. Going a step further, some journals are even pioneering preprint publishing models, wherein they host final articles on preprint servers in order to make research fully open access.

Preprints and early research dissemination

In the digital scholarly communication landscape the primary value of preprints is that they allow researchers to disseminate their work faster and to a much wider audience than they could in traditional paywalled journals. A recent Editage Insights article titled, “The role of preprints in research dissemination“ details why many scholars are choosing to use preprints. Among primary benefits are that preprints give scholars working on time-sensitive projects a way start communicating their final draft research while undergoing peer review, which depending on the discipline can sometimes take months or even years. Preprints can also serve as a way for scholars to establish priority over a particular research discovery or method, which can be especially important to those working on competitive topics in the maths and sciences. Preprints also ensure that an open access version of scholars’ work will be available regardless of where they formally publish.

The value of disseminating research faster has been magnified in the wake of the Zika virus and other public health crises, with the Wellcome Trust and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among other organizations urging scholars to commit to sharing related research as quickly as possible, including via preprints. In this way the Wellcome Trust and other organizations have identified preprints as a tool to facilitate early research visibility, feedback, and collaboration among scholars.

There are clearly many benefits to preprints. However, some publishers are questioning where they fit into the current scholarly publishing landscape. One question is - are preprints by themselves valid publications? Those involved in academic publishing have mixed opinions. A concern among many is that preprints don’t go through peer review, and post-publication vetting of preprints isn’t generally guaranteed or monitored. Uncertain manuscript vetting is a key difference between preprints and journals, making some editors and publishers, including Emilie Marcus, Editor-in-Chief of Cell and CEO of Cell Press, regard preprints as ways of accelerating the sharing of scientific ideas but not a “publishing” solution. However, this isn’t the only way to view preprints. There are editors who are establishing new methods to link preprints and formal journals making research more open as a result.

How some journals are publishing with preprints

A primary contention some publishers and editors have with preprints is that they lack the validation of formal journal articles. But what if preprint manuscripts were actually vetted and peer reviewed? Enter the vision of the overlay journal. Overlay journals are open access journals that perform the peer review function of a traditional journal but, rather than directly accepting manuscript submissions, pull in manuscripts from a preprint server.

As noted in the University College of London’s “An Introduction to Overlay Journals“ true overlay journals started to appear in the 1990s. Generally, in the overlay model journal editors vet submissions, coordinate peer review to determine if they’re fit for publication, and then, rather than publishing articles in an issue, they republish final versions to the preprint server along with a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). Overlay journals can be open access or use subscription models for final versions.

Among the most recent overlay journals is Discrete Analysis, a free to read and free to publish in mathematics journal launched by Fields Medalist Timothy Gowers, which is pioneering a new overlay model. Discrete Analysis stands out from other overlay journals because it has a formal publication website, which includes article categories visitors can choose from to access complete article listings and designated pages for each of its articles with an image and description. In this way Discrete Analysis offers readers a journal browsing experience on its website while still using arXiv to handle the publishing process. Discrete Analysis manages peer review and publishes its journal via Scholastica. Using Scholastica’s arXiv integration authors are able to submit papers they’re already posted to the arXiv for consideration by Discrete Analysis editors. The journal’s editorial board then coordinates peer review for all submissions and accepted manuscripts are edited and re-uploaded to arXiv as final versions with DOIs. The journal has already published top research including editor Terence Tao’s article on crowdsourcing the solution to the Erdős discrepancy problem. Discrete Analysis, like other overlay journals is a formal publication, which can be abstracted, indexed, and accrue impact.

For Timothy Gowers and other overlay journal founders and supporters, the primary goal of the overlay model is to lower the barrier to publishing open access and speed up research dissemination. The overlay model presents a much leaner publishing approach that eliminates the costs of time and budget journals must usually allocate to “printing services,” such as typesetting, making the publishing process quicker and more affordable.

Preprints - a publishing model of the future?

It seems safe to say that preprints are here to stay, but where they will fit into the scholarly publishing landscape is still being determined. With the launch of Discrete Analysis and other overlay journals, the bridge between preprints and publishing is certainly no longer as wide as it once was. As academia moves towards an open access future, preprints and journals will continue to intersect in different ways.

Danielle Padula

This post was written by Danielle Padula,
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