Preprints: The What, The Why, The How.

June 4th, 2018, Rusty Speidel, Matt Spitzer


The use of preprint servers by scholarly communities is definitely on the rise. Many developments in the past year indicate that preprints will be a huge part of the research landscape. Developments with DOIs, changes in funder expectations, and the launch of many new services indicate that preprints will become much more pervasive and reach beyond the communities where they started.

From funding agencies that want to realize impact from their efforts sooner to researchers’ desire to disseminate their research more quickly, the growth of these servers and the number of works being shared, has been substantial. At COS, we already host twenty different organizations' services via the OSF Preprints platform.

So what's a preprint and what is it good for? A preprint is a manuscript submitted to a  dedicated repository (like OSF Preprints, PeerJ, bioRxiv or arXiv) prior to peer review and formal publication. Some of those repositories may also accept other types of research outputs, like working papers and posters or conference proceedings. Getting a preprint out there has a variety of benefits for authors other stakeholders in the research:

  • They increase the visibility of research, and sooner. While traditional papers can languish in the peer review process for months, even years, a preprint is live the minute it is submitted and moderated (if the service moderates). This means your work gets indexed by Google Scholar and Altmetric, and discovered by more relevant readers than ever before.

  • You can get feedback on your work and make improvements prior to journal submission. Many authors have publicly commented about the recommendations for improvements they’ve received on their preprint that strengthened their work and even led to finding new collaborators.

  • Papers with an accompanying preprint get cited 30% more often than papers without. This research from PeerJ sums it up, but that's a big benefit for scholars looking to get more visibility and impact from their efforts.

  • Preprints get a permanent DOI, which makes them part of the freely accessible scientific record forever. This means others can relay on that permanence when citing your work in their research. It also means that your idea, developed by you, has a "stake in the ground" where potential scooping and intellectual theft are concerned.

So, preprints can really help lubricate scientific progress. But there are some things to keep in mind before you post. Usually, you can't post a preprint of an article that's already been submitted to a journal for peer review. Policies among journals vary widely, so it's important to check with the journal you're interested in sending your paper to BEFORE you submit a preprint that might later be published. A good resource for doing this is JISC’s SHERPA/RoMEO database. It's also a good idea to understand the licensing choices available. At OSF Preprints, we recommend the CC-BY license suite, but you can check or for good overviews on how best to license your submissions.

Questions still remain as to the impact preprints will have on traditional scholarly publishing, but it is clear the format is rapidly becoming a mainstream method for disseminating research. As citations of preprints increase, their role as a real contributor to a researcher’s career as well as scientific discourse in general seems assured. 

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