An open letter to Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society about preprints

UPDATE: Both Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society journals now allow preprints. Thanks to both groups for listening to the community and supporting the rapid and open exchange of scientific ideas.

Dear Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society ,

I am writing to ask that you support the scientific good by allowing the submission of papers that have been posted as preprints. I or my colleagues have reached out to you before without success, but I have heard through various grapevines that both of you are discussing this possibility and I want to encourage you to move forward with allowing this important practice.

The benefits of preprints to science are substantial. They include:

  1. More rapid communication and discussion of important scientific results
  2. Improved quality of published research by allowing for more extensive pre-publication peer review
  3. A fair mechanism for establishing precedence that is not contingent the idiosyncrasies of formal peer review
  4. A way for early-career scientists to demonstrate productivity and impact on a time scale that matches their need to apply for postdoctoral fellowships and jobs

I am writing to you specifically because your journals represent the major stumbling block for those of us interested in improving science by posting preprints. Your journals either explicitly do not allow the submission of papers that have preprints posted online or lack explicit statements that it is OK to do so. This means that if there is any possibility of eventually submitting a paper to one of these journals then researchers must avoid posting preprints.

The standard justification that journals give for not allowing preprints is that they constitute “prior publication”. However, this is not an issue for two reasons. First, preprints are not peer reviewed. They are the equivalent of a long established practice in biology of sending manuscripts to colleagues for friendly review and to make them aware of cutting edge work. They simply take advantage of the internet to scale this to larger numbers of colleagues. Second, the vast majority of publication outlets do not believe that preprints represent prior publication, and therefore the publication ethics of the broader field of academic publishing clearly allows this. In particular Science, Nature, PNAS, the Ecological Society of America, the Royal Society, Springer, and Elsevier all generally allow the posting of preprints. Nature even wrote about this policy nearly a decade ago stating that:

Nature never wishes to stand in the way of communication between researchers. We seek rather to add value for authors and the community at large in our peer review, selection and editing… Communication between researchers includes not only conferences but also preprint servers… As first stated in an editorial in 1997, and since then in our Guide to Authors, if scientists wish to display drafts of their research papers on an established preprint server before or during submission to Nature or any Nature journal, that’s fine by us.

If you’d like to learn more about the value of preprints, and see explanations of why some of the other common concerns about preprints are unjustified, some colleagues and I have published a paper on The Case for Open Preprints in Biology.

So, I am asking that for the good of science, and to bring your journals in line with widely accepted publication practices, that you please move quickly to explicitly allow the submission of papers that have been posted as preprints.

Ethan White

8 Comments on “An open letter to Ecology Letters and the British Ecological Society about preprints

  1. Are you sure that Ecology Letters doesn’t allow preprints?

    The author guidelines page just says this: 4. PUBLICATION ETHICS

    On submission of a paper, authors must confirm whether any of the data or content is already in the public domain (e.g. in a publicly accessible pre-print repository or report), and all relevant sources must be cited. Additionally once a paper is accepted, in signing the CTA (Copyright Transfer Agreement) form the authors sign to represent that the contribution has not been submitted elsewhere for publication. Dual publication of an article is not permitted.

    Also, I found this on Research Gate:

  2. Hi Wendy – Thanks for commenting and for bringing this up confusing issue that I probably should have addressed directly in the post. I am sure that Ecology Letters doesn’t allow preprints because both I and Philippe Desjardins-Proulx have personally confirmed this with their Editor in Chief. We both asked for clarification because we felt the above statement was unclear. As a result of this unclear statement they are actually listed as allowing preprints in SHERPA/RoMEO, which is probably where the Research Gate information is coming from. Following a similar back and forth on Twitter this morning Leonardo Saravia has contacted them to correct the issue. We went through something similar with a conflict beween ESA’s statement and it’s actual rules about a year ago, and I think one of the important lessons from all of this is that it’s really important to have clear statements of preprint policies on the journal websites.

  3. For the record, the same ambiguity in SHERPA/RoMEO also goes for BES journals (listed as yellow there), which I have made them aware of. The BES is also supposed to have a revised policy coming up this year (based on an email conversation with one of their editors).

  4. Thanks Tobias. It’s definitely encouraging to hear that BES is discussing this so hopefully we’ll hear something soon.

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  8. Pingback: Impact Challenge Day 16: Post your preprints - Impactstory blog

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