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Scholarly Communication and Open Access: Preprints

What is a preprint?

A preprint is the manuscript of a scholarly article that is ready to be submitted for peer review. In some fields, preprints are more commonly described as working papers.

Selected preprint servers

Important facts about preprints

  1. Preprints have not yet been peer-reviewed.
    A preprint is typically the version of an article that will be submitted to journal editors for possible publication. During the review process, the research will be checked by experts in the field and changes will be made. Since preprints have not been through this process yet, they are not considered as reliable as articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Once a preprint has been reviewed and published in a journal, that article becomes known as the Version of Record and supplants the preprint.

  2. The intended audience for preprints is experts in the field or related domains.
    The researchers who release preprints of their work want their peers to see their results and provide feedback outside of the formal, blind peer review process. Sometimes this takes the form of "open review", where other researchers leave comments that are posted publicly alongside the paper itself. Alternatively, researchers might provide feedback directly to the authors via email or on social media.

  3. Preprints are open and freely available.
    Preprints are intended to disseminate new research quickly and publicly. Reputable servers and websites do not charge for access to preprints.

Why does this matter?

Scientific and other scholarly articles are routinely discussed in the popular press and on social media, especially when they are freely available online for anyone to view. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a recent example and shows why it is important to understand the distinctions researchers make between different types of communications.

On April 17, 2020, a preprint of a study on exposure to the novel coronavirus entitled COVID-19 Antibody Seroprevalence in Santa Clara County, California was posted to medRxiv. Within days, the implications of the study were being discussed in the news, in blogs, and on social media, but the fact that it was not yet peer-reviewed was glossed over or ignored entirely.

This article in The Guardian explores the issues raised in the reporting and discussion of the preliminary results: Why experts are questioning two hyped antibody studies in coronavirus hotspots

An editorial in the BMJ, New preprint server for medical research, examined the pros and cons of launching medRxiv and acknowledged that while there was a risk the public would misinterpret preprints, it was outweighed by the benefits of more rapid and transparent sharing of the results of medical research. This cost-benefit analysis continues to guide discussions about the value of preprint servers.

Further reading

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. (2020). What is an unrefereed preprint? bioRxiv.

Kubota, Taylor. (2020, April 6). Stanford researchers discuss the benefits – and perils – of science without peer review. Stanford News.

Langham-Putrow, Allison and Riegelman, Amy. (2019). Discovery and scholarly communication aspects of preprints. College and Research Libraries News 80(9):506.

McCormick, Erin. (2020, April 23). Why experts are questioning two hyped antibody studies in coronavirus hotspots. The Guardian.

Rawlinson, Claire and Bloom, Theodora. (2019, June 5). New preprint server for medical research. BMJ 365: 12301.

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Ali Krzton
Subjects: Geosciences


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