“If You Ask Me”- The preprint journey: from early steps to a broader purpose

by | Nov 17, 2021 | 0 comments

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By: Iratxe Puebla, Associate Director, ASAPbio

Preprints are not new to science communication. Those who started their science careers in the 1960s may remember the memos that the NIH used to mail in file boxes; those were the first steps of the preprint journey in the form of the Information Exchange Groups [1]. After a variety of community efforts and meandering paths, preprints met the internet, leading to the launch of arXiv for physics in 1991 and later SSRN for social sciences. But despite their early experiments with the Information Exchange Groups, those in the biomedical sciences stayed on the side of the road, observing preprints from a distance.

Things changed in the 2010s as conditions aligned for the biologists to join the preprint path [2]. The scenery changed rapidly, and the last five years saw dozens of new preprint servers enter the scene. Funders and publishers issued support for preprints and research communities who previously saw preprints as something only physicists had adopted to share their papers. There are many reasons for this: Preprints allow researchers to disseminate their work rapidly and publicly without limitations on access; they are permanent citable records of research productivity; and they offer opportunities to gain community feedback. But preprints are posted without peer review, and questions have arisen about their credibility, particularly if they reach non-specialist audiences who may not be able to differentiate preprints from peer-reviewed articles, as has happened in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic [3]. As the number of preprints increased, initiatives for the commentary and review of preprints have flourished, but the debate about the challenges of disseminating scientific findings prior to peer review will continue.

So far the focus has been on preprints as a means for researchers to disseminate their work, but preprints open the door for multiple other possibilities in science communication. The preprint landscape offers fertile ground for experimentation: outputs that do not resemble the conventional journal article; versioning; broader access to scientific literature; and new ways of completing peer review and the assessment of researchers. But, important questions also remain. The use of preprints varies widely across disciplines and geographical regions; if we are to fully realize the benefits that preprints can offer, we should pause and investigate what lies behind those disparities and hear and address the needs of specific communities. The availability of more outputs and of multiple versions of the same research work (e.g. protocol, preprint versions, journal publication) will require new tools to search and keep up-to-date with the literature, and workflows that link and surface all outputs from a single project. Sustainability will also remain a major question: preprints are a public good and are free for authors and readers, but the ecosystem will need new business models that support the long-term operations of preprint servers and their ability to scale and evolve.

There is still a long way ahead for preprints, and it is likely to be one with turns and twists, but the purpose of preprints has broadened to become a vehicle on a journey to science communication that will be faster, more inclusive and more open.

We explore the preprint journey to this day, the current landscape and what turns the path may take in the coming years in the Charleston Briefing on Preprints.

  1. Cobb M (2017) The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s. PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003995. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995.
  2. Berg, J. M., Bhalla, N., Bourne, P. E., Chalfie, M., Drubin, D. G., Fraser, J. S., Greider, C. W., Hendricks, M., Jones, C., Kiley, R., King, S., Kirschner, M. W., Krumholz, H. M., Lehmann, R., Leptin, M., Pulverer, B., Rosenzweig, B., Spiro, J. E., Stebbins, M., … Wolberger, C. (2016). Preprints for the life sciences. Science, 352(6288), 899–901. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaf9133.
  3. Fleerackers A, Riedlinger M, Moorhead L, Ahmed R, Alperin JP. Communicating Scientific Uncertainty in an Age of COVID-19: An Investigation into the Use of Preprints by Digital Media Outlets. Health Commun. 2021 Jan 3:1-13. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2020.1864892.

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