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Open Research: Preprints

What is a preprint?

Preprints are versions of articles which are made available before they are peer-reviewed and published. The preprints are not peer-reviewed, edited, or typeset before being posted online. For a useful overview see this 2019 JISC report.

Preprints are usually made available on a preprint server by the author(s).  Preprint servers are often dedicated to articles in a specific discipline or group of disciplines. Examples of preprint servers include:

  • arXiv – physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics
  • bioArXiv - biology
  • MedArXiv – health sciences

('ArXiv' in the name of most of these servers is pronounced 'Archive')

Some publishers post preprints as part of their publication processes either to an existing preprint server or to a publisher owned platform.

There are also publisher owned platforms that authors can post to, e.g. SSRN 

Note that not all preprints go on to be published in a peer reviewed journal or other venue.

Using preprints as a source of information

Preprints can be useful to find out about current research  However, they have not been scrutinised or critiqued in a peer review process.  

Some preprint services will undertake some moderation of content, for example if the preprint is in the wrong format or to prevent posting of offensive content, but they do not undertake peer review. You must  therefore evaluate preprints while bearing in mind that there has been no review.  There may also be major differences between a pre-print and any final published version which will come later.

MedRxiv gives the following warning: 

"Caution: Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information."

If you find an interesting preprint, one approach could be  to check to see if it has gone on to be published.  There may be a later, peer-reviewed version available, for example in a journal.

However, many preprints do not go on to be published.

Preprints and Covid 19

There has been an increase in preprints being made available in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has prompted discussions of the benefits and risks associated with the rapid dissemination of unrefereed preprints. 

Below are some examples:

Between fast science and fake news: Preprint servers are political - a post from the LSE Impact Blong

Preprints Involving Medical Research—Do the Benefits Outweigh the Challenges? - an editorial appearing in JAMA.

Why to consider publishing a preprint

There can be many advantages to publishing a preprint:

  • a preprint allows you to make your work available quickly without waiting for the peer review and publication processes which can be slow.
  • your preprint wiil be freely available to all, increasing dissemination and raising your profile.
  • you establish priority - there is a public record of your research findings, including a timestamp.
  • if the final, published output is still pending, a preprint gives you a citable output which you can refer to in grant and job applications, etc.
  • you may get feedback on your work which will help you to improve it before submitting it for publication.
  • Negative results can be harder to publish. A preprint may be a way to make these available.

Before publishing a preprint

  1. Check your publisher's policies.
    Many academic journals allow posting of a preprint on a preprint server prior to publication, but some do not. They may not be willing to publish your work if has been published as a preprint or they may look less favorably on work that has already received considerable attention as a preprint.  The practice can also vary between disciplines where preprints are established to a greater or lesser degree. It is very important to check potential publisher's policies and practice in your area, before making your work available as a preprint.  
  2. Consider your licensing options.
    You must be able to retain your copyright, so check that this is the case.  You may need to decide on a license under which you wish to make your work available.   You will usually be asked to choose one of the Creative Commons Licenses.  Make sure the licence you choose fits with your publisher's polices.  Some publisher's specify particular licences.
  3. Get agreement from your co-authors
  4. Factor in time to make your preprint available.
    You will need to register for the preprint server that you intend to use, read their policies, upload your manuscript and provide details about your preprint  This can take time to do.
  5. Consider how you  are you going to respond to feedback.
    You may receive positive and negative comments about your preprint.  Consider how are you going to respond to these and use them to develop your output.  For example, are you going to allow time between posting your preprint and submitting your work for publication, in which to adapt your work in response to comment.
  6. Be sure
    Making a preprint available is  irreversible, they become a permanent part of the scholarly record.  Seek advice if you are unsure whether to post a preprint.

If your work goes on to be published, you should also consider how you are going to make the peer reviewed version of your work Open Access in your chosen journal or by self-archiving on SHURA.

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