Preprints have become particularly popular over the past year and the reason for the uptick was, unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic.
First, What Is A Preprint?
A preprint is a preliminary version of a scientific paper made publicly available. It typically precedes formal peer review and/or acceptance into a journal.
When looking at the publication cycle, preprints are typically found in the feedback stage before formal peer review. Most often, authors are putting their work out there early for informal feedback from peers to make sure the paper is ready for submission, as well as establishing precedence for research findings. Sometimes preprints have been submitted for acceptance in a journal, and sometimes not, and there is no guarantee that a preprint will be accepted by a journal and undergo peer review. Preprints can also satisfy some funding requirements to make the results openly available, even if the results are ultimately not published in an open access journal.
Covid-19’s Impact on Preprints
As the world raced to share insights and provide therapies related to Covid-19, the result was a rapid increase in submissions to preprint servers and access to those preprints, which ultimately created a shift in how researchers are now publishing and interacting with preprints.
Right now, about half of all pandemic research is being published to preprints servers first. Comparatively, this marks a significant shift from previous outbreaks of Ebola and Zika, where only 5 percent of research was published as a preprint. During the SARS pandemic, 93 percent of research was published after the epidemic had ended. The shift during COVID is understandable given that research was needed in real time so researchers could get a vaccine created as quickly as possible.
Why are Preprints Used? What Our Research Shows
A lot of literature focuses on the pros and cons of preprints for authors and publishers, but there is little information about what preprints mean for researchers, especially in the commercial space. We gathered feedback from corporate R&D intensive organizations to determine how preprints are being used.
- Access the earliest, most cutting-edge research available in real time
- Early competitive research can help a company decide whether to pursue a new product line
- Monitor how products are being used in the market
- Access science that may never be published in a traditional journal
Has Covid-19 Changed Perceptions Around Preprints?
There are challenges when it comes to discerning the quality of non-peer reviewed information, as well as the ambiguity around copyright for commercial organizations. At the end of the day, there is overwhelming consensus that the final published article in a peer reviewed journal is preferred and should replace the preprint version. But, when speaking with researchers, we learned preprints can still play a significant role in early phase explorations.
Here are a few key takeaways from our conversations:
“Most literature search results I compile specifically exclude preprints since they are not yet peer-reviewed. However, I do provide a weekly update to support our COVID-19 Task Force and that one lists pre-prints because that body of literature is so dynamic.”
“Our thinking on pre-prints is evolving during the COVID crisis. Science is accelerating, and we are finding that we need to pay more attention to articles that are being deposited in repositories ahead of publication.”
“Sometimes I need hard facts, other times it is useful just to find ideas and inspiration, and that can come from anywhere. If preprints were included I could make an informed decision about whether they were relevant to the query in hand and either flag them up or discard them.”
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