By Jonny Coates and Emmanuel Adamolekun
The current publishing landscape, which is dominated by publishers, contributes to the slow dissemination of scientific knowledge. Preprints (manuscripts shared online prior to journal-organised peer review) accelerate this process and bring much needed equity to the publishing system. However, one of the barriers to wider preprint adoption is the persistence of myths surrounding preprints. In this article, we break down the top four myths.
Preprints are citable, meaning that collaborators or others who use the results to develop new ideas can credit the work.
Myth 1: If I post a preprint I will get scooped
One of the most persistent myths surrounding preprints is that authors can get scooped (where another group rushes to publish the same work first). However, not only are such stories incredibly rare, but preprints actually provide scoop protection. First, ideas and work can be stolen when presented in seminars or at conferences; in these formats, there are no protections against this happening. Preprints, on the other hand, may have a DOI (a permanent digital object identifier), ensuring that they are permanent records that form a normal component of the scientific literature. Preprints are citable, meaning that collaborators or others who use the results to develop new ideas can credit the work. Moreover, as preprints are free to read for all, this ensures that the scientific community can see who “published” the results first; given that science is reputation-based, this provides enhanced protection against scooping. Additionally, some journals have policies that consider preprints in the priority seuence of claims, thus preventing scooping.
Myth 2: If I post a preprint then I can’t publish in my favourite journal
This myth was perhaps true in the early days of posting preprints but most journals now accept, or even support, preprints. Indeed, all of the major publishers now own preprint servers and most journal policies support preprint posting. Many journals now also give you the option to upload a preprint when you submit your manuscript. To check your chosen journals' specific policies, you can use the Romeo/SHERPA tool or check for the relevant policies directly on journal websites.
Peer review provid[es] rather limited improvements to preprints, at the expense of researcher time and money.
Myth 3: Preprints are low-quality/there's lots of junk on preprint servers
Another persistent myth that prevents some from using and posting preprints is a notion that they are low-quality compared to peer-reviewed papers, or that anything can be uploaded onto a preprint server. However, most preprint servers require newly posted preprints to undergo basic screening to prevent misinformation or unreliable science being uploaded. Additionally, there is an increasing abundance of evidence supporting the quality of preprints on the whole. All of this evidence points towards peer review providing rather limited improvements to preprints, at the expense of researcher time and money. Moreover, quality issues are also present in the peer-reviewed literature, with low-quality, irreproducible and even fraudulent work passing “peer review”. Peer-reviewed papers should be treated with the same skepticism as preprints.
Myth 4: It's dangerous to share work prior to peer review/peer review is a gold standard
Linked to myth 3 is the notion that it is dangerous to share work prior to peer review. The problem with this myth is that it holds peer review as an infallible defense against poor-quality or incorrect science. Peer review can often be mistaken as a stamp of approval, despite an abundance of evidence against the efficacy of peer review. Preprints demand that readers assess work themselves and that poor proxies are not used instead. Effectively, this puts the attention back onto the content and quality of individual scientific articles.
The benefits of preprints are numerous and well-documented, particularly for early-career researchers. Although myths surrounding preprints persist, they are just that – myths! By dispelling some of those myths we hope to instill you with greater confidence in using preprints in your own work; there are a range of preprint servers but we recommend bioRxiv for most life science authors. The ASAPbio website (and associated resources) is essential reading to learn more about preprints.
Jonny Coates (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Director of ASAPbio; Emmanuel Adamolekun is a 2023 ASAPbio Fellow.