Expansion of the preprint landscape has gathered pace over recent years and in particular has seen rapid growth through the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 15th Conference of the European Association of Science Editors (EASE), a debate was held on the topic: Preprints are going to replace journals. Dr Haseeb Irfanullah was appointed to oppose the motion.
“Despite their limitations, I believe, preprints are here not to replace, but to complement peer-reviewed journals.”
Dr Irfanullah centred his argument against preprint publications replacing traditional peer review journals on three main topics: publication rigour, access to content, and the characteristics of distraction, disruption and destruction.
The first topic focused on expectations within the academic community that published research should meet several measures of rigour, including:
- high quality research design
- presentation in an acceptable written format
- a validated peer review process
- formal publication
- dissemination for research impact.
Publications in peer-reviewed journals meet these expected standards. Whilst some can also apply to preprints, there is a lack of peer review and validation. Instead, the author suggests that preprints should be described as ‘research documents’ or ‘research communications’, rather than formal publications.
On the topic of access to content, Dr Irfanullah acknowledged some advantages of preprint articles over journals, including rapid dissemination of research and free access to all. Yet journals have continued to make strides in improving access to peer-reviewed content, including the expansion of open access publication options and initiatives to improve access in low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, the introduction of transferable peer review and the creation of ‘reviewer pools’ to facilitate rapid publication of COVID-19 manuscripts have helped create an environment in which a rapid publication process is now expected.
In Dr Irfanullah’s third supporting argument for his case against preprints, he highlighted several weaknesses of the preprint process:
- Preprints continue to suffer from citation problems, including how to identify preprints as non–peer-reviewed articles.
- Open review is often limited: the expectation is that open review exposes research to wider scrutiny, but the reality is that preprints only rarely receive reviews and those comments that are received are less likely to meet the rigour of traditional peer review.
- The belief that preprint servers would be a disruptive force – threatening journals’ subscription models – has not transpired: potential revenue streams remain limited and publishers will be reticent to invest in similar servers. As such, the not-for-profit funding model may be unsustainable and is unlikely to be destructive to publishers’ commercial interests.
Whilst preprints are becoming an established part of the publication landscape, it is perhaps more likely that they will remain a complementary format to peer-reviewed journals. Preprints may in fact be a force for good and, with appropriate caveats, could encourage more open and inclusive publishing practices.