Is it OK to cite preprints? Yes, yes it is.

Should you cite preprints in your papers and should journals allow this? This is a topic that gets debated periodically. The most recent round of Twitter debate started last week when Martin Hunt pointed out that the journal Nucleic Acids Research wouldn’t allow him to cite them. A couple of days later I suggested that journals that don’t allow citing preprints are putting their authors’ at risk by forcing them not to cite relevant work. Roughly forty games of Sleeping Queens later (my kid is really into Sleeping Queens) I reopened Twitter and found a roiling debate over whether citing preprints was appropriate at all.

The basic argument against citing preprints is that they aren’t peer reviewed. E.g.,

and that this could lead to the citation of bad work and the potential decay of science. E.g.,

There are three reasons I disagree with this argument:

  1. We already cite lots of non-peer reviewed things in ecology
  2. Lots of fields already do this and they are doing just fine.
  3. Responsibility for the citation lies with the citer

We already cite non-peer reviewed things in ecology

As Auriel Fournier, Stephen Heard, Michael Hoffman, TerryMcGlynn and ATMoody pointed out we already cite lots of things that aren’t peer reviewed including government agency reports, white papers, and other “grey literature”.

We also cite lots of other really important non-peer reviewed things like data and software. We been doing this for decades. Ecology hasn’t become polluted with pseudo science. It will all be OK.

Lots of other fields already do this

One of the things I find amusing/exhausting about biologists debating preprints is ignorance of their history and use in other fields. It’s a bit like debating the name of an actor for two hours when you could easily look it up on Google.

In this particular case (as Eric Pedersen pointed out) we know that citation of preprints isn’t going to cause problems for the field because it hasn’t caused issues in other fields and has almost invariably become standard practice in fields that use preprints. Unless you think Physics and Math are having real issues it’s difficult to argue that this is a meaningful problem. Just ask a physicist

You are responsible for your citations

Why hasn’t citing unreviewed work caused the wheels to fall off of science? Because citing appropriate work in the proper context is part of our job. There are good preprints and bad preprints, good reports and bad reports, good data and bad data, good software and bad software, and good papers and bad papers. As Belinda Phipson, Casey Green, Dave Harris and Sebastian Raschka point out it is up to us as the people citing research to make professional judgments about what is good science and should be cited. Casey’s take captures my thoughts on this exactly:

TLDR

So yes, you should cite preprints and other unreviewed things that are important for your work. That’s called proper attribution. It has worked in ecology and other fields for decades. It will continue to work because we are scientists and evaluating the science we cite is part of our jobs. You can even cite this blog post if you want to.

Thanks to everyone both linked here and not for the spirited discussion. Sorry I wasn’t there, but Sleeping Queens is a pretty awesome game.

UPDATE: For those of you new to this discussion, it’s been going on for a long time even in biology. Here is Graham Coop’s excellent post from nearly 4 years ago.

UPDATE: Discussion of why it’s important to put preprint citations are in the reference list

8 Comments on “Is it OK to cite preprints? Yes, yes it is.

  1. I’m not a fan of open access preprints from a scicomm perspective…but I agree with your comparison to citing grey literature. However, I think the issue with ‘not being peer reviewed’ is a real checkpoint – even grey literature suffers from that. Perhaps it’s more about ensuring peer reviewers check the accuracy of the citations?

  2. Hi Manu – Thanks so much for commenting. I definitely agree that there are challenges with preprints from a scicomm perspective. In general I think that scicomm/reporting should either wait until a paper is published, be clear that it is unreviewed/preliminary (like reporting on talks at conferences), pay close attention to any public pre-publication peer review, or get feedback on the work from experts in the field (which reporters at least should typically be doing anyway). Brian O’Meara and I where just chatting about this a bit the other day. I agree that part of the peer review process involves making sure that key citations are good valid science. The example from the beginning of the post of someone using climate change denial blog posts as the foundation of a paper is a good example. If that was published I would definitely view it as a failure of the peer review process. I also think it’s unlikely that a paper using climate change denial blog posts as the foundation wouldn’t also have other problems.

  3. P.S. I think that the need to evaluate the key citations of a paper also applies to peer reviewed work. There is lots of bad work that makes it past peer review but is widely known to be problematic. This work also shouldn’t serve as the foundation of papers just because it was published in a journal

  4. I agree that is crazy not to cite preprints/grey-literature/government reports etc….
    In some (applied) disciplines within life science it is also already widely practiced (Environmental science, Science-Policy, .. ).
    The whole debate reminds me a bit of a very similar discussion a while ago on the dynamic-ecology blog about wether it is okay to cite blog posts. See here for pro ( https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/friday-links-111/ ) and contra view ( https://medium.com/@tpoi/should-we-cite-blog-posts-during-peer-review-20c86a6378a5 ).


    My 50c :
    The general problem is that in our fast throughput mode of publication these days (who can truly keep up with the flood of published new manuscripts every week…), it becomes easier to misuse non peer-reviewed sources just to get past peer review.
    For instance what prevents someone from writing several pre-prints / blog-posts on a very obscure pet hypothesis just to cite them in a peer-reviewed submission ? Given the poor state of peer review these days I wouldn’t be surprised if it passes this “check”. Especially given that many scientists rarely cross check references or even read beyond a title, journal and maybe the abstract…

    I think the issue is not __if__ we allow citing pre-prints, but rather how to support and improve scientific peer-review to better deal with grey literature and non-published sources and to check claims! It works in Physics and Mathematics, so why not in Ecology?

  5. If we regard preprints as a way of establishing priority, then they really need to be citeable in order that someone reading a preprint and using its results can properly attribute the data/ideas to the preprint’s author(s).

    I agree that there may be drawbacks, and we need to think more about the best way to handle preprints in citations.

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