“Preprint servers have been growing explosively over the last ten years: over 60 platforms are currently available worldwide, and the sharing of research outputs prior to formal peer-review and publication is increasing in popularity. Preprint servers have a long history in fields such as high energy physics, where extensive collaboration and co-authorship are the norm, and economics, with its lengthy review and publication process. Services like arXiv and RePEC emerged in the 1990s as a means of enabling early-sharing of research results in these disciplines, and have co-existed with traditional journals for decades….
Over the last 12 months we’ve been working on a project commissioned by Knowledge Exchange to explore the role of preprints in the scholarly communication process, speaking with researchers, research performing organizations, research funding organizations, and preprint service providers. Our interviews with authors indicate that early and fast dissemination is the primary motive behind preprint posting. In addition, the increased scope for feedback seems to be highly valued, with much of this interaction taking place via Twitter and email, rather than via direct comments on preprint servers. Early career researchers see particular advantages: the inclusion of preprints on CVs or funding applications enables them to demonstrate credibility in a field much sooner than would otherwise be the case….
In fields with a longstanding preprint culture, such as economics, scholarly practice has evolved to the point where ‘the working paper [on RePEc] is downloaded many times more than the article’. Similar patterns have been observed in mathematics, where arXiv-deposited articles appear to receive a citation advantage but see a reduction in downloads, and there are early indications of citation and altmetric advantages to biological science papers deposited in bioRxiv….
Journals with strong brands, or in fields that have yet to show much interest in preprints, may therefore find that a wait-and-see strategy serves them best. It remains unclear how many of the new crop of preprint servers will be able to develop a sustainable business model, and the recent decision by PeerJ to stop accepting new preprints lends credence to a cautious approach. Having established the first dedicated services for preprints in biology and life science, PeerJ’s management team have now opted to focus solely on peer-reviewed journals – effectively conceding the territory to not-for-profit preprint servers such as BioRxiv. As PeerJ’s CEO Jason Hoyt observes: ‘What we’re learning is that preprints are not a desired replacement for peer review, but a welcome complement to it.’
The second wave of preprint servers has much to offer the researcher community, but those expecting it to wash away existing scientific journals are liable to be disappointed. In our view, the biggest threat to academic publishers will come, not from preprint servers, but from other publishers that do a better job of addressing authors’ desire for accelerated dissemination, feedback and scholarly credit. This might be achieved through improved internal workflows, acquisition or strategic partnerships. In each case, seeing the integration of preprints into the research workflow as an opportunity, rather than a disruptive threat, is likely to offer publishers the best hope of continuing to identify and attract high-quality content.