Tuesday 26 June 2018

Preprint publication as karaoke

 Doing research, analysing the results, and writing it up is a prolonged and difficult process. Submitting the paper to a journal is an anxious moment. Of course, you hope the editor and reviewers will love it and thank you for giving them the opportunity to read your compelling research. And of course, that never happens. More often you get comments from reviewers pointing out the various inadequacies of your grasp of the literature, your experimental design and your reasoning, leading to further angst as you consider how to reply. But worse than this is silence. You hear nothing. You enquire. You are told that the journal is still seeking reviewers. If you go through that loop a few times, you start to feel like the Jane Austen heroine who, having dressed up in her finery for the ball, spends the evening being ignored by all the men, while other, superficial and gaudy women are snapped up as dance partners.

There have been some downcast tweets in my timeline about papers getting stuck in this kind of journal limbo. When I suggested that it might help to post papers as preprints, several people asked how this worked, so I thought a short account might be useful.

To continue the analogy, a preprint server offers you a more modern world where you can try karaoke. You don't wait to be asked: you grab the microphone and do your thing. I now routinely post all my papers as preprints before submitting them to a journal. It gets the work out there, so even if journals are unduly slow, it can be read and you can get feedback on it.

So how does it work? Pre-prints are electronic articles that are not peer-reviewed. I hope those who know more about the history will be able to comment on this, as I'm hazy on the details, but the idea started with physicists, to whom the thought of waiting around for an editorial process to complete seemed ridiculous. Physicists have been routinely posting their work on arXiv (pronounced 'archive') for years to ensure rapid evaluation and exchange of ideas. They do still publish in journals, which creates a formal version of record, but the arXiv is what most of them read. The success of arXiv led to the development of BioRxiv, and then more recently PsyArXiv and SocArXiv. Some journals also host preprints - I have had good experiences with PeerJ, where you can deposit an article as a preprint, with the option of then updating it to a full submission to the journal if you wish*.

All of these platforms operate some basic quality control. For instance, the BioRxiv website states: 'all articles undergo a basic screening process for offensive and/or non-scientific content and for material that might pose a health or biosecurity risk and are checked for plagiarism'. However, once they have passed screening, articles are deposited immediately without further review.

Contrary to popular opinion, publishing a preprint does not usually conflict with journal policies. You can check the policy of the journal on the Sherpa/ROMEO database: most allow preprints prior to submission.

Sometimes concerns are expressed that if you post a preprint your work might be stolen by someone who'll then publish a journal article before you. In fact, it's quite the opposite. A preprint has a digital object identifier (DOI) and establishes your precedence, so guards against scooping. If you are in a fast-moving field where an evil reviewer will deliberately hold up your paper so they can get in ahead, pre-printing is the answer.

So when should you submit a preprint? I would normally recommend doing this a week or two before submitting to a journal, to allow for the possibility of incorporating feedback into the submitted manuscript, but, given that you will inevitably be asked for revisions by journal reviewers, if you post a preprint immediately before submission you will still have an opportunity to take on board other comments.

So what are the advantages of posting preprints?

1. The most obvious one is that people can access your work in a timely fashion. Preprints are freely available to all: a particularly welcome feature if you work in an area that has implications for clinical practice or policy, where practitioners may not have access to academic journals.

2. There have been cases where authors of a preprint have been invited to submit the work to a journal by an editor. This has never happened to me, but it's nice to know it's a possibility!

3. You can cite a preprint on a job application: it won't count as much as a peer-reviewed publication, but it does make it clear that the work is completed, and your evaluators can read it. This is preferable to just citing work as 'submitted'. Some funders are now also allowing preprints to be cited. https://wellcome.ac.uk/news/we-now-accept-preprints-grant-applications

4. Psychologically, for the author, it can be good to have a sense that the work is 'out there'. You have at least some control over the dissemination of your research, whereas waiting for editors and reviewers is depressing because you just feel powerless.

5. You can draw attention to a preprint on social media and explicitly request feedback. This is particularly helpful if you don't have colleagues to hand who are willing to read your paper. If you put out a request on Twitter, it doesn't mean people will necessarily reply, but you could get useful suggestions for improvement and/or make contact with others interested in your field.

On this final point, it is worth noting that there are several reasons why papers linger in journal limbo: it does not necessarily mean that the journal administration or editor is incompetent (though that can happen!). The best of editors can have a hard job finding reviewers: it's not uncommon to have to invite ten reviewers to find two who agree to review. If your papers is in a niche area then it gets even harder. For these reasons it is crucial to make your title and abstract as clear and interesting as possible: these are the only parts of the paper that potential reviewers will see, and if you are getting a lot of refusals to review, it could be that your abstract is a turn-off. So asking for feedback on a preprint may help you rewrite it in a way that encourages more interest from reviewers.

*Readers: please feel free to add other suggestions while comments are open. (I close comments once the invasion of spammers starts - typically 3-4 weeks after posting).

1 comment:

  1. And now there are well-established overlay journals on the arXiv and this trend should hopefully continue. A good example is Discrete Analysis-