Arguing the Case for Preprints

This is Peer Review Week 2020 as part of which I am participating tomorrow afternoon (Irish Time) in a live panel discussion/webinar called Increasing transparency and trust in preprints: Steps journals can take.

Working in a field like astrophysics, where the use of preprints as a means of disseminating information and ideas is well established, I’m always surprised that some people working in other disciplines don’t really approve of them at all. See for example, this Twitter thread. Still, even in the biosciences, preprints have their advocates and there are signs that attitudes may be changing.

That is not to say that things aren’t changing in astrophysics too. One of the interesting astronomical curiosities I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page.

Younger readers will probably not realize that preprints were not always produced in the electronic form they are today. We all used to make large numbers of these and post them at great expense to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication in order to get comments. That was extremely useful because a paper could take over a year to be published after being refereed for a journal: that’s too long a timescale when a PhD or PDRA position is only a few years in duration. The first papers I was given to read as a new graduate student in 1985 were all preprints that were not published until well into the following year. In some cases I had more or less figured out what they were about by the time they appeared in a journal!

The B2FH paper was published in 1957 but the practice of circulating preprints persisted well into the 1990s. Usually these were produced by institutions with a distinctive design, logo, etc which gave them a professional look, which made it easier to distinguish `serious’ papers from crank material (which was also in circulation). This also suggested that some internal refereeing inside an institution had taken place before an “official” preprint was produced and this lending it an air of trustworthiness. Smaller institutions couldn’t afford all this, so were somewhat excluded from the preprint business.

With the arrival of the arXiv the practice of circulating hard copies of preprints in astrophysics gradually died out, to be replaced by ever-increasing numbers of electronic articles. The arXiv does have some gatekeeping – in the sense there are some controls on who can deposit a preprint there – but it is far easier to circulate a preprint now than it was.

It is still the case that big institutions and collaborations insist on quite strict internal refereeing before publishing a preprint – and some even insist on waiting for a paper to be accepted by a journal before adding it to the arXiv – but there’s no denying that among the wheat there is quite a lot of chaff, some of which attracts media coverage that it does not deserve. It must be admittted, however, that the same can be said of some papers that have passed peer review and appeared in high-profile journals! No system that is operated by human beings will ever be flawless, and peer review is no different.

Nowadays, in astrophysics, the single most important point of access to scientific literature is through the arXiv, which is why the Open Journal of Astrophysics was set up as an overlay journal to provide a level of rigorous peer review for preprints, not only to provide a sort of quality mark but also to improve the paper through the editorial process.

As for increasing transparency and trust in preprints, I think I’ll save some suggestions for tomorrow’s webinar. A good start, however, would be for journals to admit their own limitations and start helping rather than hindering the dissemination of information and ideas.

7 Responses to “Arguing the Case for Preprints”

  1. Is this all because a paper of yours was reclassified?

    • Honestly, you make it sound like the arXiv is run by the Mafia.

      I have no idea what issues you are referring to, other than the trivial one of you yourself having a paper moved to another classification.

    • How about demonstrating them then?

  2. Well, it is a *preprint* server…

  3. It is a false dichotomy, which is why I never asserted it. My general argument made in other posts – not the point I was making in this article – is that traditional journals have been made obsolete because of digital publication technology. The arXiv is by no means perfect – not surprisingly because it is run on a shoestring – but demonstrates a way forward for some disciplines.

  4. In high energy physics, this is definitely true. everyone only looks at arxiv. As I mentioned earlier, people like Witten and Maldacena motly post on arxiv and its the journal editors who contact them to request them to publish their papers to their journal

  5. […] had to send paper manuscripts in the post to the Editorial office. Likewise many of us carried on sending out paper preprints for some time after the arXiv was set up. Younger researchers should be grateful they don’t […]

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