A systematic examination of preprint platforms for use in the medical and biomedical sciences setting
Preprint posted on April 28, 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.27.063578v1
Article now published in BMJ Open at http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-041849
Publication norms are changing in the biological sciences with the arrival of preprint platforms that allow scientists to post manuscripts before peer-review. While physicists and mathematicians had the access to preprint repositories such as arXiv since the early 1990s, preprints were not widely accepted in life sciences until the launch of the first preprint server in 2013. Since then preprint submissions have gained popularity among all fields in biology1 and the coronavirus pandemic has skyrocketed the number of preprints in the last three months2. Therefore, preprint repositories are becoming even more crucial to disseminate scientific knowledge in a speedy manner to the community during the pandemic.
As preprints become widely accepted, there are many misconceptions about how preprint platforms function and what policies they employ. Kirkham and colleagues provide a searchable repository of 44 currently available preprint platforms in biology and medical sciences and compare and contrast their key features and policies. As a preprint and open science advocate, I find this work crucial to weigh in the pros and cons of preprint servers and use them to make evidence-based improvements in the dissemination of scientific knowledge.
There are several questions and misconceptions among researchers regarding preprint platforms. Some of the key attributes addressed by Kirkham et al are highlighted here.
- Who owns preprint servers? Two-thirds of platforms curated in this report are owned by scientific societies, non-profit academic groups, or funding organizations. The rest of the platforms are associated with for-profit companies or publishers. All for-profit and non-profit preprint platforms are free for authors to post a preprint. F1000 Research that provides peer-review and other publishing services requires a processing fee from the authors much like a journal.
- Is there a pre-screening of contents before publication? Contrary to popular belief and concerns over the quality of preprints, most platforms have an initial screening protocol that is completed within a week. The vetting process includes checks on scientific content, plagiarism, ethical and legal concerns, and compliance. bioRxiv and medRxiv, which are amongst the largest repositories also screen the content to check whether the preprint could be harmful to human health. One-third of repositories even involve researchers to screen for the relevance of content.
- Who can view a preprint? Most preprint platforms offer full access to preprint content to everyone, however, some new ‘First Look’ platforms such as Sneak Peek from Cell Press require user registration.
- What is the relationship between journal submission and preprint platforms? It remains one of the biggest concerns for the authors whether the journal of their choice will accept a preprint. The success of preprints in physics and other domains somewhat influenced journals in the biological sciences to welcome the use of preprints3 and the number of journals accepting preprints is burgeoning1. An important feature some platforms offer is to facilitate the transfer of manuscripts between preprint servers like bioRxiv and submission to journals. Preprint platforms like F1000 Research and Sneak Peek from Cell Press accept preprints only if authors submit their manuscript to their associated partner journals.
- Can I submit my preprint to any repository? The author has to choose a platform based on their area of research as well as where the work was conducted. Half of the platforms included in this study cover articles from multidisciplinary research. Several niche platforms exist that cater to specific subject areas or community-based objectives such as sharing work in non-English languages. There also exist regional preprint platforms that are restricted to a geographical location. For example, repositories in Africa, China, France include research work carried out in that specific geographical area.
- Do preprint platforms allow only manuscripts? The goal of preprints is to facilitate rapid distribution of scientific knowledge. Some platforms also allow project reports and presentations and there are designated platforms just for theses such as Thesis commons.
- What kind of user metrics preprint servers provide? The most common metric used by online preprint platforms is the number of downloads.
- Does publishing a preprint put me in trouble with funding agencies? Central funding agencies such as NIH and Wellcome Trust encourage preprint submissions prior to peer-review and allow them in grant applications. Platforms such as Open Research Central accept work funded by a specific group of funding agencies.
- Where can I find more information? A searchable database consisting of 44 preprint platforms is publicly available at https://asapbio.org/preprint-servers.
- Abdill RJ, Blekhman R. Tracking the popularity and outcomes of all bioRxiv preprints. Elife. 2019;8:e45133. Published 2019 Apr 24. doi:10.7554/eLife.45133
- Nicholas Fraser, Liam Brierley, Gautam Dey, Jessica K Polka, Máté Pálfy, Jonathon Alexis Coates. Preprinting a pandemic: the role of preprints in the COVID-19 pandemic. bioRxiv 2020.05.22.111294; doi:10.1101/2020.05.22.111294
- Cobb M. The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s. PLoS Biol. 2017;15(11):e2003995. Published 2017 Nov 16. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995
Questions for the authors:
- During the ongoing pandemic, some preprint platforms are changing their policies and not accepting certain kinds of work. Does this defy the purpose of preprints in your opinion?
- Are there additional screening measures that need to be employed by preprint repositories to limit the publishing of bad science?
- One of the biggest benefits of preprints is that authors receive feedback from everyone. Are there any repositories that do not allow/limit user engagement?
- Who initiates removal/retractation of preprints from the platform? Is it solely the responsibility of the platform? Do preprint platforms permanently remove objectionable content?
- Do First Look platforms that have partner journals offer preprints free-of-charge/without journal subscription?
- Are there any disadvantages to using platforms that do not provide DOI vs the ones that do?
- Do all preprint platforms archive manuscripts that are retracted?
Posted on: 18th July 2020Read preprint