The case for preprints

National Geographic magazines. Credit: Unsplash

Daniel Mansur, the principal investigator of a lab at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina that studies how cells respond to viruses, had this to say about why preprints are useful in an interview to eLife:

Let’s say the paper that we put in a preprint is competing with someone and we actually have the same story, the same set of data. In a journal, the editors might ask both groups for exactly the same sets of extra experiments. But then, the other group that’s competing with me works at Stanford or somewhere like that. They’ll order everything they need to do the experiments, and the next day three postdocs will be working on the project. If there’s something that I don’t have in the lab, I have to wait six months before starting the extra experiments. At least with a preprint the work might not be complete, but people will know what we did.

Preprints level the playing field by eliminating one’s “ability to publish” in high-IF journals as a meaningful measure of the quality of one’s work.

While this makes it easier for scientists to compete with their better-funded peers, my indefatigable cynicism suggests there must be someone out there who’s unhappy about this. Two kinds of people come immediately to mind: journal publishers and some scientists at highfalutin universities like Stanford.

Titles like NatureCellNew England Journal of Medicine and Science, and especially those published by the Elsevier group, have ridden the impact factor (IF) wave to great profit through many decades. In fact, IF continues to be the dominant mode of evaluation of research quality because it’s easy and not time-consuming, so – given how IF is defined – these journals continue to be important for being important. They also provide a valuable service – the double-blind peer review, which Mansur thinks is the only thing preprints are currently lacking in. But other than that (and with post-publication peer-review being largely suitable), their time of obscene profits is surely running out.

The pro-preprint trend in scientific publishing is also bound to have jolted some scientists whose work received a leg-up by virtue of their membership in elite faculty groups. Like Mansur says, a scientist from Stanford or a similar institution can no longer claim primacy, or uniqueness, by default. As a result, preprints definitely improve the forecast for good scientists working at less-regarded institutions – but an equally important consideration would be whether preprints also diminish the lure of fancy universities. They do have one less thing to offer now, or at least in the future.