Snapshot: What are Preprints?

Scientific research takes a long time: experiments are performed, clinical trials are run, and the data that’s generated has to be analysed and understood before it can be published. Together, this process does not happen quickly. Though people may not realise it, one step that takes a lot of time between generating data and publishing a paper is the publishing process itself.

Publishing a scientific paper can take anywhere from a few months to years. If we look at statistics from 2018 for the journal PLOS ONE, for instance, we see that the median time it took a paper to go through the publication process was 6 months. That means that half of the papers took less than 6 months to process, while the other half took longer. In addition, it often takes multiple submissions to different journals before a paper is accepted, and researcher teams can only submit a paper to one journal at a time. Considering all this, it is no surprise that the process of publishing a scientific article can take a substantial amount of time.

Illustration of a scientist working at a laptop computer, sharing ideas with colleagues
A scientist working on writing a scientific paper. Image courtesy of Piqsels.

However, there are many important things that happen during this process: manuscripts are screened by a journal editor, appropriate experts in the field are asked to perform peer review, and reviews are submitted to the editor. This editor then makes a decision on how to move forward (usually asking the authors to update their work to meet the reviewers’ requests). Papers can be rejected at any of these stages, and this process may occur two or three times at any one journal before a final decision to accept or reject is made.

Due to the time this process takes, there is a delay in getting the results of a study to fellow scientists – information that could drastically influence the experiments being conducted in research laboratories right now. Thankfully, this is where preprints come in.

Preprints are final drafts of papers that research teams share on public servers before/as they start the publication process. This means that other researchers can see the draft manuscripts long before the “official” paper is published. One of the most popular sites for unpublished preprints in the life sciences is bioRxiv (pronounced “bio-archive”), which, as of March 2020, has had over 77,000 preprint papers uploaded to its servers.

What are the benefits of preprint papers?

One of the main benefits of preprints is the rapid spread of information. Instead of the months- or years-long delay to share papers, the scientific community can read preprints to learn about some of the latest findings in the field.

The authors also benefit from uploading a preprint because it acts as a time stamp for when they revealed their results. Establishing a priority of research findings can be important to authors because of the competitive nature of science. Likewise, because of the collaborative nature of science, multiple different research groups may choose to upload preprints on similar results at the same time to ensure priority is not assigned to one study while the other studies are held up in the publishing process.

It is also much easier for researchers to share information on “negative data” through preprints, as well as replication studies. Negative data are the results you get when an experiment reveals that your initial prediction – known as your “hypothesis” – is likely incorrect. Replication studies are repeats of experiments that have previously been published by other groups, and they serve to double-check that the work of those groups was done correctly. Although replication studies and negative data are very important to the scientific process, it can be hard to publish these studies, as some journals do not view such studies as new or interesting. Preprints are an alternative to share this information.

Do we still need traditional publishing?

Despite the extensive time it takes, traditional publishing will always have one advantage over preprints: peer review. Peer review can catch little mistakes and improve the overall quality of papers in many ways, including suggesting additional experiments and/or alterations to the writing style. In rare cases where fraud or plagiarism occurs, peer review can also prevent the publication of such studies.

This difference between preprints and published papers has recently been highlighted by bioRxiv. During the COVID-19 pandemic, bioRxiv published the following statement:

“bioRxiv is receiving many new papers on coronavirus 2019-nCoV. A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information”

This statement is a response to some media outlets not completely understanding the difference between preprints and published papers. As bioRxiv says, they are different and should not be treated the same.

This does not mean, though, that we cannot trust the information we find in preprint papers – it just means that we need to critically analyse the information in preprints. When reading preprints, it is important to understand that they are a preview of a work in progress, not the final product.

If you would like to learn more about preprints, take a look at this article by Science Magazine, this video by iBiology, or this definition by bioRxiv.

Snapshot written by Celeste Suart and edited by Dr. Hannah Shorrock.