Preprint servers: what are they good for?

Philippe Desjardins-Proulx and colleagues have a nice paper up in PLOS Biology (yes, it is PLOS now and no longer PLoS) The Case for Open Preprints in Biology.  See their Box 1 - Preprint Server Roundup – for an excellent overview of the most popular preprint servers.

Public preprint servers allow authors to make manuscripts publicly available before, or in parallel to, submitting them to journals for traditional peer review. The rationale for preprint servers is fundamentally simple: to make the results of research available to the scientific community as soon as possible, instead of waiting until the peer-review process is fully completed. Sharing manuscripts using preprint servers has numerous advantages, including: 1) rapid dissemination of work-in-progress to a wider audience; 2) immediate visibility of the research output for early-career scientists; 3) improved peer review by encouraging feedback from the entire research community; and 4) a fair and straightforward way to establish precedence.

I applaud the promotion of open preprints for Biology and the life sciences in general.  I think the paper provides a nice overview of the history, benefits, and use of preprint servers.  I agree, a main benefit is to get your work out there quickly, while it bubbles through the long peer review process.

However, another key value of servers like figshare and peerj preprints is as an end point for contributions to the scientific literature.  Most contributions to figshare, arXiv, etc., will never be submitted to “formal” peer review or published elsewhere.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  This is how preprint servers can help free up our clogged peer review system.  For some kinds of articles (e.g., opinion pieces), pre-publication peer review (PrePPR) doesn’t really seem to make sense.  If a preprint server had been available three years ago for a paper we just published at PeerJ Preprints, we would have gone directly there, saving time for everyone, and getting our ideas out much faster.  Another outlet is obviously blogs, like SeaMonster, but preprint servers have the important benefits of being archived (professionally) and citable.

One thing that surprised me about Desjardins-Proulx et al was their views about PrePPR being “formal validation”.  Far to much junk science gets through peer review, even at the top science journals, to call PrePPR “formal validation” with a straight face.  For a sampling of posts about the many problems with peer review go here, herehere, here or here.

“A preprint is simply a document that allows ideas to spread and be discussed, it is not yet formally validated by the peer-review system.”

Validation is a process that begins with the authors themselves, their getting feedback from their colleagues, from reviewers and then readers post-publication.  It isn’t a black and white switch that gets flipped once a paper is accepted by a journal.  So while I agree, a preprint isn’t “formally validated”, nothing in science is.  We don’t use stamps of approval in science.  We dissect, debate, and examine findings and ideas, pretty much forever.

One Response to “Preprint servers: what are they good for?”

  1. jebyrnes says:

    I agree with your validation point. THis is why I think preprint servers may want to think about incorporating the simple tools of reputations economies as exemplified by stackoverflow, reddit, and others. Could help to have some ‘sorting’ and ‘validation by the community’ in addition to just putting work out there. Indeed, PeerJ already has this for comments on preprints. So….why not for the preprints themselves?

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