A preprint is an early version of a scholarly article prior to formal peer review. Preprints have been around for a long time with the first preprint server, arXiv, for physics, mathematics and related disciplines, launched in 1991. Today there are preprint servers for every discipline, from biological and chemical science – bioArxiv, ChemRxiv – to social science and the humanities – SocArxiv, PsyArxiv. In addition preprints can be posted on repositories such as Zenodo and Figshare or specialised services like Open Science Framework.

Preprints and White Rose Research Online

Historically, preprints have not been in scope for White Rose Research Online (WRRO) which is focussed on peer-reviewed material, the version of an article that has been accepted by a journal for example, as required to be eligible for REF. Recently however, we have been getting more requests from researchers wanting to upload their preprints.

We are exploring a ‘preprint’ item type in Symplectic, in the meantime you can use ‘working paper’ and upload to WRRO in the normal way. Get in touch with us at research@library.leeds.ac.uk if you have any questions on how to do this.

A preprint may or may not be submitted to a journal for publication and will not prevent publication by most publishers, though it is important to check.

Rapid dissemination

Preprints have become an established method of sharing early scientific results, especially in the context of COVID19. Some funding bodies advocate the use of preprints during health emergencies, with researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust strongly encouraged to post preprints under a Creative Commons-Attribution (CC-BY) licence, with a clear statement on data availability.

Other benefits of preprints include establishing the provenance of a new idea. Open comments and feedback that can help to improve your manuscript. They are open access with no cost to the author or reader. Authors usually retain copyright. However, the lack of formal peer review means caution is required. There have been instances of preliminary results on Coronavirus presented as a breakthrough in the media only to be withdrawn later. Ultimately preprints can contribute to the transparency and accountability of the scientific method.

For more advice on using preprints in your discipline, please contact Research Support.

Research outputs from WRRO relating to COVID-19

The principles of Open Science

Like many universities, Leeds is increasingly promoting the principles of open science. We tend to use the term ‘open research’ to be more inclusive of the humanities. 

The basic principles that we promote are as follows:

  • Wherever possible, ensure all publications are available open access 
  • Where appropriate make underlying data relating to publications openly available 
  • Share protocols and methodologies openly 
  • Share software and code openly 
  • Apply appropriate open licences to your open material e.g. Creative Commons 
  • Use persistent identifiers consistently throughout your workflow i.e. DOI and ORCID 
  • Exploit online tools to aid collaboration including blogging, social media, altmetrics, pre-print servers 

Open Science Saves Lives: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

This preprint posted on BioRxiv on 14th August is an accessible overview of open science principles as they relate to scientific production during the Covid19 pandemic. It is well worth reading and, if you agree with its proposals, signing your support before the end of August 2020.

Briefly it covers:

  • Data collection and interpretation 

This can include incorrect use of statistical methods and questionable research practices such as HARKing (Hypothesizing After the Results are Known) and p-hacking (collecting or selecting data or statistical analyses until nonsignificant results become significant).

  • Publication process

The authors consider fast-track publication, conflicts of interest and lack of data sharing. They highlight the rapid growth of preprints during the Covid 19 pandemic with 6,771 posted on MedRxiv in the first 6 months of the pandemic, up from 807 in the previous six months, an increase of 739%. There has been a concomitant increase in retractions, both of pre prints and peer-reviewed articles.

  • Science Communication

This section focusses on the proliferation of preprints and their misuse, by the news media in particular, uncritically using non-peer reviewed preprints as scientific evidence, increasing the impact of invalidated findings.

"One of the benefits of preprints is to receive early feedback from other researchers, which helps to identify and correct potential flaws in the methodology, analysis or reporting, thus enhancing the quality of the article. As such, preprints may contain inaccuracies or unreliable findingsand it must be noted that many preprints are never accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals."

Of course the internet means preprints can be discovered, not only by researchers but by journalists and laypeople. It is important that people are scientifically literate and understand that science is a process carried out by human beings with all their biases.

In the age of clickbait it is also important for science to be communicated responsibly, to avoid exaggerating research findings and to be clear on the review status.

Ultimately openness and transparency is good for science but we need to help people interpret what they find online.