Should Preprint Policies Be Revised?

Evidence suggests it may be time for journals to address post-submission preprinting

Should Preprint Policies Be Revised?

When preprints entered biomedicine via bioRxiv, most journals were quick to state that they were fine accepting papers based on posted preprints, with some constraints. This was based on the presumption that preprints would be posted prior to journal submission, which has been the traditional understanding of what a preprint was — an understanding reinforced by bioRxiv’s statement of purpose:

By posting preprints on bioRxiv, authors are able to make their findings immediately available to the scientific community and receive feedback on draft manuscripts before they are submitted to journals.

How things have evolved deviates from these presumptions and bioRxiv’s stated main purpose in ways that may prompt journals to reconsider their policies around preprints.

JAMA, for instance, has this policy:

Public dissemination of manuscripts prior to, simultaneous with, or following submission to this journal, such as posting the manuscript on preprint servers or other repositories, will necessitate making a determination of whether publication of the submitted manuscript will add meaningful new information to the medical literature or will be redundant with information already disseminated with the posting of the preprint. Authors should provide information about any preprint postings, including copies of the posted manuscript and a link to it, at the time of submission of the manuscript to this journal.

JAMA’s policy presumes that the posting of the preprint has occurred prior to submission. However, if their experience comports with general trends, there may be no preprint to link to upon submission — the preprint may be posted only after the authors have received enough of a signal that they’re headed toward acceptance, and potentially after (and incorporating) peer review.

They are not alone, as BMJ’s policy states:

. . . [preprints] allow the timely sharing of completed research within the academic community. By posting preprints, authors are able to make their findings immediately available to the health sciences community and receive feedback on draft manuscripts before they are submitted to journals for formal publication.

Yet, all three medRxiv preprints with associated BMJ publications (two in BMJ Global Health and one in BMJ Open) were posted after the papers were submitted.

What we seem to be seeing is that authors are posting manuscripts on preprint servers like bioRxiv and medRxiv well after submission. This suggests to me they are getting peer-review feedback before posting the preprints — with preliminary findings I wrote about yesterday indicating that ~85% of papers derived from preprints on medRxiv were posted as preprints at an average of 88 days after submission, more than enough time for peer-review to have occurred in most cases. Trends on bioRxiv aren’t as stark, but follow the same pattern — an analysis I did indicated that 57% of papers in Nature journals derived from preprints were submitted to the journal before the corresponding preprint was posted, by 20 days to start, which grew to 40 days after a couple of years. Again, 40 days is more than enough time to receive peer-review feedback from most good journals.

Do preprint policies need to be revisited? Do authors need to be told that once they submit to a journal, they shouldn’t post to a preprint server, since preprints are intended to provide authors with pre-submission feedback? Should preprint services themselves exert some additional check to force authors to disclose if the paper has been submitted to a journal already? Accepted? Published? Or if it includes feedback from a formal journal peer-review process?

It seems the presumptions that preprints are pre-submission may be generally  inaccurate now.

Maybe it’s time to update policies and practices to reflect these emerging realities.

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