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Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

5 Disadvantages of Preprints

5 Disadvantages of Preprints

Have you ever asked yourself whether you should publish your manuscript as a preprint? You’re not alone! Preprints are becoming increasingly popular in more and more fields. You may be wondering: What is a preprint? What are disadvantages of preprints? In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the five most common concerns when it comes to publishing preprints to a preprint server.

I recently polled Twitter asking whether scientists publish preprints, and in case they weren’t whether they are considering doing so. It turns out that of the 186 people who answered the survey, about one third submits their scientific papers as preprints, of which more than one third publishes every article as a preprint. 12% of the respondents do not plan on uploading preprints at all. However, the biggest fraction of people, 54%, are considering preprints but have no prior experience with them.

What is a preprint?

A preprint is a version of a scientific article published before peer-review. It is usually not edited and type-set and available for free. Scientists can upload preprints on several different preprint servers – one of the most famous ones probably being arXiv, a platform for scientific articles on physics, mathematics, computer science and related fields. The platform has been around since 1991 and was more or less recently joined by similar services for other disciplines, such as bioRxiv in 2013 and chemRxiv and EarthArXiv in 2017. Other preprint platforms include PeerJ PrePrints and Preprints.org.

Preprint servers are not just becoming more plentiful, an increasing number of scientists are also choosing to publish preprints. While in 2014 less than 4000 authors published their work on bioRxiv, the number rose to 80,000 in 2018 – that’s 20 times more in only four years!

At the same time, people are downloading more and more preprints. In fact, the number of downloads of your preprint can be an indicator for the type of journal it will eventually appear in: Researchers found that the more downloads a preprint on bioRxiv receives, the higher the impact factor of the journal tends to be that it ends up being published in.

Disadvantages of preprints & Common concerns

If you are in the 54% chunk of my Twitter poll results – meaning you are considering publishing a preprint – you are probably curious about the disadvantages of preprints. In the end, you are uploading your study to the internet before it has undergone peer-review! In this blog post, we’ll be looking at the 5 most common concerns about publishing a preprint:

  1. Do all journals allow publishing preprints?
  2. Does the publishing process take even longer when I publish a preprint?
  3. What if I receive negative comments on my preprint?
  4. What if I get scooped?
  5. Are preprints making it harder for scientists and the public to distinguish between high- and low-quality research?

So, let’s take a closer look at those potential disadvantages of preprints! 

#1: Do all journals allow publishing preprints?

Previously, preprint policies of journals were often unclear or publishing preprints was right out banned. But nowadays, nearly all journals and publishers allow publishing preprints. For example, in May 2019, Springer Nature unified and clarified the preprint policies of all their journals stating that publishing of preprints is permitted, even under Creative Commons Licences. Also, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the American Medical Association (JAMA Network) whose preprint policies used to be unclear now allow studies being published as preprints.

Promo image advertising free scientific writing class

Generally, scientific journals have different requirements about what information you have to provide, e.g., where and when the preprint has been published. Journal policies can also vary in terms of whether it is allowed to publish a preprint prior to peer review or whether you can update a preprint after peer review.

Because of the many variations in journal preprint policies, it is essential to check the preprint policy of your target journal carefully. The Transpose database is a great resource to compare preprint (and peer review) policies of different scientific journals. An overview of the preprint policies of lots of scientific journals can also be found in this Wikipedia article. If you are unsure about what is allowed and required, I recommend reaching out to the publisher and ask for clarification before risking a rejection or retraction because of a breach of preprint policies.

#2: Does the publishing process take even longer when I publish a preprint?

Publishing a scientific paper is a time-consuming undertaking. After data collection and analysis, you need to write, edit and format the paper, compose a cover letter to the editor, look for referees and often fight with outdated submission systems. If your manuscript isn’t instantly rejected, there’s more work waiting for you after the reviewers’ assessment.

So, adding uploading a preprint to a preprint server to the list of tasks, may not seem enticing. The short answer to the question of whether publishing a preprint extends the publishing process is: yes. So, a greater time investment clearly is one of the disadvantages of preprints. Additional tasks include: checking and clarifying journal policies, registering with a preprint server and uploading your manuscript.

More crucially, after posting the manuscript, you may receive comments from other researchers on your work (see concern #3). These may be so valuable that you will want to revise your manuscript before sending it to your target journal. Although this really is one of the benefits of preprints, this may delay publishing and takes some extra effort, so it’s good to be aware and plan accordingly.

#3: What if I receive negative comments on my preprint?

Because of the greater exposure preprints receive, publishing a preprint means that you are more likely to receive comments on your work. This can happen either publicly on the preprint server or social media or privately via email. And truth is, these comments may, on occasion, sting.

And just as with any negative feedback we may receive, I believe the wisest approach is to put the critical words aside for a while. When you read through the comments again a few hours later or even the next day, the critique may not seem as negatively as you first perceived. You can then judge whether the feedback is valid and coming from a valued source. If it is, you’ll probably be grateful about it, especially if you haven’t submitted your scientific paper to your target journal yet.

Receiving comments on your preprints is like a pre-peer-review, which can result in that you end up publishing a study of higher quality than you would otherwise have. And you will have the chance to improve your study before sending it out to the scientific journal.

Apart from the risk of egos being hurt, it is possible that any public comments that you receive on your preprint are being taken into account when your manuscript is under peer-review. It appears that journal policies on this point are unclear. Regardless of whether the comments on your preprint can officially be considered in the peer review process, it will be hard for a reviewer or editor to “unsee” any opinion they have read about your study. So this is certainly something one should be aware of and one of the disadvantages of preprints — depending how you see it.

#4: What if I get scooped?

Scooping means that another research group steals an idea from the preprint and publishes a similar study in a peer-reviewed journal before you do. This is probably one of the disadvantages of preprints that most researchers, especially in the medical and life sciences, are concerned about. Proponents of preprints, however, argue that you receive a DOI when your article is accepted on the preprint server, and that there is permanent and public record of the publication of your scientific contribution including a timestamp.

Paul Ginsberg, the creator of arXiv, suggests that stealing research ideas or information from preprints is not an issue if preprints are common standard in a scientific community – as they are, for example, in physics. This way, editors and peer-reviewers are aware of the true owner of the work and “no one can plausibly claim that they ‘did not see it’”, writes Ginsberg in a commentary in the EMBO journal.

EMBO press, a publisher of several life science journals, has even implemented a scooping protection from the day your manuscript appears on a preprint server. This means that in the time frame between publishing the preprint and the peer-reviewed paper, EMBO press does not consider manuscripts from other authors reporting on similar findings as a criterion for rejection.

#5: Are preprints making it harder for scientists and the public to distinguish between high- and low-quality research?

Both scientists and journalists usually pay attention to the journal a study is published in. Often higher journal impact factors are regarded as indicators for higher quality work. Simply the fact that a paper has undergone peer-review is often seen as a criterion for quality.

With preprints that are published without assessment by other experts, there is a risk of weak studies receiving disproportionate attention. Tom Sheldon, a press manager at the Science Media Center – an organisation that supplies science journalists with expert information on current hot topics – fears that weak preprints could get overblown in the media while good work might get ignored. This may lead to misinforming and confusing the public, Sheldon argues.

When a significant study is published the traditional way, journalists are usually able to access the paper and an accompanying press release a few days ahead of publication. This gives them time to do their research, interview experts and write an informed news item. With preprints, Sheldon worries, journalists may rush to be the first to write about an exciting finding, potentially misleading the public. Indeed, most papers receive more attention after being published as a preprint rather than after they have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. I do believe that Sheldon’s concerns are valid, this is certainly one of the disadvantages of preprints. My conclusion is: Preprints may simply not be the right place for all studies.

To lower the risk for publication of pseudoscience, medRxiv, a preprint server in the field of health sciences – a discipline where hypes around false findings may have serious consequences – has implemented a somewhat tighter screening process than other preprint servers.

Another important piece of the puzzle is to educate the public about the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed articles. Also, when referring to scientific findings both journalists and scientists should always specify whether these have been published as a preprint or as a peer-reviewed paper.

Disadvantages of preprints – summary

To conclude, while all of the 5 discussed concerns about preprints are common, not all of them are disadvantages of preprints.

Here’s a recap of the three most striking disadvantages of preprints:

  • It costs additional time in the publishing process
  • Negative comments on the preprint server may influence the peer review process
  • Preprints may be misreported in the media

Despite these disadvantages, preprints have a lot of benefits for researchers, scientific communities and society that you should be aware of. Publishing a preprint isn’t the right choice for every study but it’s worth it in most cases.

If you are unsure whether or not to publish a preprint, we are happy to coach you on your publishing strategy inside our online academic writing program, the Researchers’ Writing Academy.

If you are curious what the Researchers’ Writing Academy has to offer, I highly recommend watching our free training video where I outline our step-by-step system to write clear & concise papers for your target journals in a timely manner. Click the button below to watch immediately or save for later! 👇👇

Promo image advertising free scientific writing course

Share article

5 Disadvantages of Preprints

Have you ever asked yourself whether you should publish your manuscript as a preprint? You’re not alone! Preprints are becoming increasingly popular in more and more fields. You may be wondering: What is a preprint? What are disadvantages of preprints? In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the five most common concerns when it comes to publishing preprints to a preprint server.

I recently polled Twitter asking whether scientists publish preprints, and in case they weren’t whether they are considering doing so. It turns out that of the 186 people who answered the survey, about one third submits their scientific papers as preprints, of which more than one third publishes every article as a preprint. 12% of the respondents do not plan on uploading preprints at all. However, the biggest fraction of people, 54%, are considering preprints but have no prior experience with them.

What is a preprint?

A preprint is a version of a scientific article published before peer-review. It is usually not edited and type-set and available for free. Scientists can upload preprints on several different preprint servers – one of the most famous ones probably being arXiv, a platform for scientific articles on physics, mathematics, computer science and related fields. The platform has been around since 1991 and was more or less recently joined by similar services for other disciplines, such as bioRxiv in 2013 and chemRxiv and EarthArXiv in 2017. Other preprint platforms include PeerJ PrePrints and Preprints.org.

Preprint servers are not just becoming more plentiful, an increasing number of scientists are also choosing to publish preprints. While in 2014 less than 4000 authors published their work on bioRxiv, the number rose to 80,000 in 2018 – that’s 20 times more in only four years!

At the same time, people are downloading more and more preprints. In fact, the number of downloads of your preprint can be an indicator for the type of journal it will eventually appear in: Researchers found that the more downloads a preprint on bioRxiv receives, the higher the impact factor of the journal tends to be that it ends up being published in.

Disadvantages of preprints & Common concerns

If you are in the 54% chunk of my Twitter poll results – meaning you are considering publishing a preprint – you are probably curious about the disadvantages of preprints. In the end, you are uploading your study to the internet before it has undergone peer-review! In this blog post, we’ll be looking at the 5 most common concerns about publishing a preprint:

  1. Do all journals allow publishing preprints?
  2. Does the publishing process take even longer when I publish a preprint?
  3. What if I receive negative comments on my preprint?
  4. What if I get scooped?
  5. Are preprints making it harder for scientists and the public to distinguish between high- and low-quality research?

So, let’s take a closer look at those potential disadvantages of preprints! 

#1: Do all journals allow publishing preprints?

Previously, preprint policies of journals were often unclear or publishing preprints was right out banned. But nowadays, nearly all journals and publishers allow publishing preprints. For example, in May 2019, Springer Nature unified and clarified the preprint policies of all their journals stating that publishing of preprints is permitted, even under Creative Commons Licences. Also, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the American Medical Association (JAMA Network) whose preprint policies used to be unclear now allow studies being published as preprints.

Promo image advertising free scientific writing class

Generally, scientific journals have different requirements about what information you have to provide, e.g., where and when the preprint has been published. Journal policies can also vary in terms of whether it is allowed to publish a preprint prior to peer review or whether you can update a preprint after peer review.

Because of the many variations in journal preprint policies, it is essential to check the preprint policy of your target journal carefully. The Transpose database is a great resource to compare preprint (and peer review) policies of different scientific journals. An overview of the preprint policies of lots of scientific journals can also be found in this Wikipedia article. If you are unsure about what is allowed and required, I recommend reaching out to the publisher and ask for clarification before risking a rejection or retraction because of a breach of preprint policies.

#2: Does the publishing process take even longer when I publish a preprint?

Publishing a scientific paper is a time-consuming undertaking. After data collection and analysis, you need to write, edit and format the paper, compose a cover letter to the editor, look for referees and often fight with outdated submission systems. If your manuscript isn’t instantly rejected, there’s more work waiting for you after the reviewers’ assessment.

So, adding uploading a preprint to a preprint server to the list of tasks, may not seem enticing. The short answer to the question of whether publishing a preprint extends the publishing process is: yes. So, a greater time investment clearly is one of the disadvantages of preprints. Additional tasks include: checking and clarifying journal policies, registering with a preprint server and uploading your manuscript.

More crucially, after posting the manuscript, you may receive comments from other researchers on your work (see concern #3). These may be so valuable that you will want to revise your manuscript before sending it to your target journal. Although this really is one of the benefits of preprints, this may delay publishing and takes some extra effort, so it’s good to be aware and plan accordingly.

#3: What if I receive negative comments on my preprint?

Because of the greater exposure preprints receive, publishing a preprint means that you are more likely to receive comments on your work. This can happen either publicly on the preprint server or social media or privately via email. And truth is, these comments may, on occasion, sting.

And just as with any negative feedback we may receive, I believe the wisest approach is to put the critical words aside for a while. When you read through the comments again a few hours later or even the next day, the critique may not seem as negatively as you first perceived. You can then judge whether the feedback is valid and coming from a valued source. If it is, you’ll probably be grateful about it, especially if you haven’t submitted your scientific paper to your target journal yet.

Receiving comments on your preprints is like a pre-peer-review, which can result in that you end up publishing a study of higher quality than you would otherwise have. And you will have the chance to improve your study before sending it out to the scientific journal.

Apart from the risk of egos being hurt, it is possible that any public comments that you receive on your preprint are being taken into account when your manuscript is under peer-review. It appears that journal policies on this point are unclear. Regardless of whether the comments on your preprint can officially be considered in the peer review process, it will be hard for a reviewer or editor to “unsee” any opinion they have read about your study. So this is certainly something one should be aware of and one of the disadvantages of preprints — depending how you see it.

#4: What if I get scooped?

Scooping means that another research group steals an idea from the preprint and publishes a similar study in a peer-reviewed journal before you do. This is probably one of the disadvantages of preprints that most researchers, especially in the medical and life sciences, are concerned about. Proponents of preprints, however, argue that you receive a DOI when your article is accepted on the preprint server, and that there is permanent and public record of the publication of your scientific contribution including a timestamp.

Paul Ginsberg, the creator of arXiv, suggests that stealing research ideas or information from preprints is not an issue if preprints are common standard in a scientific community – as they are, for example, in physics. This way, editors and peer-reviewers are aware of the true owner of the work and “no one can plausibly claim that they ‘did not see it’”, writes Ginsberg in a commentary in the EMBO journal.

EMBO press, a publisher of several life science journals, has even implemented a scooping protection from the day your manuscript appears on a preprint server. This means that in the time frame between publishing the preprint and the peer-reviewed paper, EMBO press does not consider manuscripts from other authors reporting on similar findings as a criterion for rejection.

#5: Are preprints making it harder for scientists and the public to distinguish between high- and low-quality research?

Both scientists and journalists usually pay attention to the journal a study is published in. Often higher journal impact factors are regarded as indicators for higher quality work. Simply the fact that a paper has undergone peer-review is often seen as a criterion for quality.

With preprints that are published without assessment by other experts, there is a risk of weak studies receiving disproportionate attention. Tom Sheldon, a press manager at the Science Media Center – an organisation that supplies science journalists with expert information on current hot topics – fears that weak preprints could get overblown in the media while good work might get ignored. This may lead to misinforming and confusing the public, Sheldon argues.

When a significant study is published the traditional way, journalists are usually able to access the paper and an accompanying press release a few days ahead of publication. This gives them time to do their research, interview experts and write an informed news item. With preprints, Sheldon worries, journalists may rush to be the first to write about an exciting finding, potentially misleading the public. Indeed, most papers receive more attention after being published as a preprint rather than after they have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. I do believe that Sheldon’s concerns are valid, this is certainly one of the disadvantages of preprints. My conclusion is: Preprints may simply not be the right place for all studies.

To lower the risk for publication of pseudoscience, medRxiv, a preprint server in the field of health sciences – a discipline where hypes around false findings may have serious consequences – has implemented a somewhat tighter screening process than other preprint servers.

Another important piece of the puzzle is to educate the public about the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed articles. Also, when referring to scientific findings both journalists and scientists should always specify whether these have been published as a preprint or as a peer-reviewed paper.

Disadvantages of preprints – summary

To conclude, while all of the 5 discussed concerns about preprints are common, not all of them are disadvantages of preprints.

Here’s a recap of the three most striking disadvantages of preprints:

  • It costs additional time in the publishing process
  • Negative comments on the preprint server may influence the peer review process
  • Preprints may be misreported in the media

Despite these disadvantages, preprints have a lot of benefits for researchers, scientific communities and society that you should be aware of. Publishing a preprint isn’t the right choice for every study but it’s worth it in most cases.

If you are unsure whether or not to publish a preprint, we are happy to coach you on your publishing strategy inside our online academic writing program, the Researchers’ Writing Academy.

If you are curious what the Researchers’ Writing Academy has to offer, I highly recommend watching our free training video where I outline our step-by-step system to write clear & concise papers for your target journals in a timely manner. Click the button below to watch immediately or save for later! 👇👇

Promo image advertising free scientific writing course

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