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:
- We already cite lots of non-peer reviewed things in ecology
- Lots of fields already do this and they are doing just fine.
- 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:
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
Thoughts on preprints and citations
A couple of months ago Micah J. Marty and I had a twitter conversation and subsequent email exchange about how citations worked with preprints. I asked Micah if I could share our email discussion since I thought it would be useful to others and he kindly said yes. What follows are Michah’s questions followed by my responses.
Right now, I am finishing up a multi-chapter Master’s thesis and I plan to publish a few papers from my work. I may want to submit a preprint of one manuscript but before I propose this avenue to my advisor, I want to understand it fully myself. And I have remaining questions about the syntax of citing works when preprints come into play. What happens to a citation of a preprint after the manuscript is later published in a peer reviewed venue?
At the level of the journal nothing happens. So, if you cite a preprint in a published ms, and that preprint is later published as a paper, then the citation is still to the preprint. However, some of the services indexing citations recognize the relationship between the preprint and the paper and aggregate the citations. Specifically, Google Scholar treats the preprint and the published paper as the same for citation analysis purposes. See the citation record for our paper on Best practices for scientific computing which has been cited 49 times, but the vast majority of those are citations to the preprints.
Here’s an example with names we can play with: Manuscript 1 (M1) may require some extra analysis, but it presents some important unexpected results that I would like to get out on the table as soon as possible. M1 is submitted to PeerJ Preprints and accepted (i.e., published online as a preprint with a DOI). M2 is submitted to Marine Ecology Progress Series (MEPS) for peer review, and M2 cites the PeerJ Preprint M1.
Just a point related to vocabulary, I wouldn’t typically think of the preprint as being “accepted”. Any checking prior to posting is just a quick glance to make sure that it isn’t embarrassingly bad, so as long as it’s reasonably written and doesn’t have a title like “E is not equal to mc squared” it will be posted almost immediately (within 48 hours on most preprint servers).
1) Are preprints considered “grey literature”? That is, is it illegitimate for M2 to cite a work that has not been peer reviewed?
Yes, in the sense that they haven’t been formally peer reviewed prior to posting they are similar to “grey literature”. Whether or not they can be cited depends on the journal. Some journals are happy to allow citing of preprints. For example, this recent paper in TREE cites a preprint of ours on arXiv. Their paper was published before ours was accepted, so if it wasn’t for the preprint it couldn’t have been cited.
2) Is there a problem if M1 is eventually published in a peer reviewed journal but the published article of M2 cites only the PeerJ Preprint of M1?
I would say no for two reasons. First, assuming that M2 is published before M1 then the choice is between having a citation to something that people can read, science can benefit from, and that can potentially be indexed (giving you citation credit) vs. a citation to “Marty et al. unpublished data”, which basically does nothing. Second, all preprint servers provide a mechanism for linking to the final version, so if someone finds the preprint via a citation in M2 then that link will point them in the direction of the final version that they can then read/cite/etc.
In short, I think as long as you aren’t planning on submitting to a behind the times journal that doesn’t allow the submission of papers that have been posted as preprints (and the list of journals with this policy is shrinking rapidly) then there is no downside to posting preprints. In the best case scenario it can lead to more people reading your research and citing it. The worst case scenario is exactly the same as if you didn’t post a preprint.
Ecology Letters now allows preprints; and why this is a big deal for ecology
As announced by Noam Ross on Twitter (and confirmed by the Editor in Chief of Ecology Letters), Ecology Letters will now allow the submission of manuscripts that have been posted as preprints. Details will be published in an editorial in Ecology Letters. I want to say a heartfelt thanks to Marcel Holyoak and the entire Ecology Letters editorial board for listening to the ecological community and modifying their policies. Science is working a little better today than it was yesterday thanks to their efforts.
For those of you who are new to the concept of preprints, they are manuscripts, that have not yet been published in peer reviewed journals, which are posted to websites like arXiv, PeerJ, and bioRxiv. This process allows for more rapid communication of scientific results and improved quality of published papers though more expansive pre-publication peer-review. If you’d like to read more check out our paper on The Case for Open Preprints in Biology.
The fact that Ecology Letters now allows preprints is a big deal for ecology because they were the last of the major ecology journals to make the transition. The ESA journals began allowing preprints just over two years ago and the BES journals made the switch about 9 months ago. In addition, Science, Nature, PNAS, PLOS Biology, and a number of other ecology journals (e.g., Biotropica) all support preprints. This means that all of the top ecology journals, and all of the top general science journals that most ecologists publish in, allow the posting of preprints. As such, there is not longer a reason to not post preprints based on the possibility of not being able to publish in a preferred journal. This can potentially shave months to years off of the time between discovery and initial communication of results in ecology.
It also means that other ecology journals that still do not allow the posting of preprints are under significant pressure to change their policies. With all of the big journals allowing preprints they have no reasonable excuse for not modernizing their policies, and they risk loosing out on papers that are initially submitted to higher profile journals and are posted as preprints.
It’s a good day for science. Celebrate by posting your next manuscript as a preprint.
Which preprint server should I use?
Preprints are rapidly becoming popular in biology as a way to speed up the process of science, get feedback on manuscripts prior to publication, and establish precedence (Desjardins-Proulx et al. 2013). Since biologists are still learning about preprints I regularly get asked which of the available preprint servers to use. Here’s the long-form version of my response.
The good news is that you can’t go wrong right now. The posting of a preprint and telling people about it is far more important than the particular preprint server you choose. All of the major preprint servers are good choices.Of course you still need to pick one and the best way to do that is to think about the differences between available options. Here’s my take on four of the major preprint servers: arXiv, bioRxiv, PeerJ, and figshare.
arXiv is the oldest of the science preprint servers. As a result it is the most well established, it is well respected, more people have heard of it than any of the other preprint servers, and there is no risk of it disappearing any time soon. The downside to having been around for a long time is that arXiv is currently missing some features that are increasingly valued on the modern web. In particular there is currently no ability to comment on preprints (though they are working on this) and there are no altmetrics (things like download counts that can indicate how popular a preprint is). The other thing to consider is that arXiv’s focus is on the quantitative sciences, which can be both a pro and a con. If you do math, physics, computer science, etc., this is the preprint server for you. If you do biology it depends on the kind of research you do. If your work is quantitative then your research may be seen by folks outside of your discipline working on related quantitative problems. If your work isn’t particularly quantitative it won’t fit in as well. arXiv allows an array of licenses that can either allow or restrict reuse. In my experience it can take about a week for a preprint to go up on arXiv and the submission process is probably the most difficult of the available options (but it’s still far easier than submitting a paper to a journal).
bioRxiv is the new kid on the block having launched less than a year ago. It has both commenting and altmetrics, but whether it will become as established as arXiv and stick around for a long time remains to be seen. It is explicitly biology focused and accepts research of any kind in the biological sciences. If you’re a biologist, this means that you’re less likely to reach people outside of biology, but it may be more likely that biology folks come across your work. bioRxiv allows an array of licenses that can either allow or restrict reuse. However, they explicitly override the less open licenses for text mining purposes, so all preprints there can be text-mined. In my experience it can take about a week for a preprint to go up on bioRxiv.
PeerJ Preprints is another new preprint server that is focused on biology and accepts research from across the biological sciences. Like bioRxiv it has commenting and altmetrics. It is the fastest of the preprint servers, with less than 24 hours from submission to posting in my experience. PeerJ has a strong commitment to open access, so all of it’s preprints are licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution License. PeerJ also publishes an open access journal, but you can post preprints to PeerJ Preprints with out submitting them to the journal (and this is very common). If you do decide to submit your manuscript to the PeerJ journal after posting it as a preprint you can do this with a single click and, should it be published, the preprint will be linked to the paper. PeerJ has the most modern infrastructure of any of the preprint servers, which makes for really pleasant submission, reading, and commenting experiences. You can also earn PeerJ reputation points for posting preprints and engaging in discussions about them. PeerJ is the only major preprint server run by a for-profit company. This is only an issue if you plan to submit your paper to a journal that only allows the posting of non-commercial preprints. I only know of only one journal with this restriction, but it is American Naturalist which can be an important journal in some areas of biology.
figshare is a place to put any kind of research output including data, figures, slides, and preprints. The benefit of this general approach to archiving research outputs is that you can use figshare to store all kinds of research outputs in the same place. The downside is that because it doesn’t focus on preprints people may be less likely to find your manuscript among all of the other research objects. One of the things I like about this broad approach to archiving anything is that I feel comfortable posting that isn’t really manuscripts. For example, I post grant proposals there. figshare accepts research from any branch of science and has commenting and altmetrics. There is no delay from submission to posting. Like PeerJ, figshare is a for-profit company and any document posted there will be licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution License.
Those are my thoughts. I have preprints on all three preprint servers + figshare and I’ve been happy with all three experiences. As I said at the beginning, the most important thing is to help speed up the scientific process by posting your work as preprints. Everything else is just details.
UPDATE: It looks like due to a hiccup with scheduling this post than an early version went out to some folks without the figshare section.
UPDATE: In the comments Richard Sever notes that bioRxiv’s preprints are typically posted within 48 hours of submission and that their interpretation of the text mining clause is that this is covered by fair use. See our discussion in the comments for more details.
British Ecological Society journals now allow preprints
The British Ecological Society has announced that will now allow the submission of papers with preprints (formal language here). This means that you can now submit preprinted papers to Journal of Ecology, Journal of Animal Ecology, Methods in Ecology and Evolution, Journal of Applied Ecology, and Functional Ecology. By allowing preprints BES joins the Ecological Society of America which instituted a pro-preprint policy last year. While BES’s formal policy is still a little more vague than I would like*, they have confirmed via Twitter that even preprints with open licenses are OK as long as they are not updated following peer review.
Preprints are important because they:
- Speed up the progress of science by allowing research to be discussed and built on as soon as it is finished
- Allow early career scientists to establish themselves more rapidly
- Improve the quality of published research by allowing a potentially large pool reviewers to comment on and improve the manuscript (see our excellent experience with this)
BES getting on board with preprints is particularly great news because the number of ecology journals that do not allow preprints is rapidly shrinking to the point that ecologists will no longer need to consider where they might want to submit their papers when deciding whether or not to post preprints. The only major blocker at this point to my mind is Ecology Letters. So, my thanks to BES for helping move science forward!
*Which is why I waited 3 weeks for clarification before posting.
New journals that are changing the way we publish
Academic publishing is in a dynamic state these days with large numbers of new journals popping up on a regular basis. Some of these new journals are actively experimenting with changing traditional approaches to publication and peer review in potentially important ways. So, I thought I’d provide a quick introduction to some of the new kids on the block that I think have the potential to change our approach to academic publishing.
PeerJ is in some ways a fairly standard PLOS One style open access journal. Like PLOS One they only publish primary research (no reviews or opinion pieces) and that research is evaluated only on the quality of the science not on its potential impact. However, what makes PeerJ different (and the reason that I’m volunteering my time as an associate editor for them) is their philosophy that in the era of the modern web it should it should be both cheap and easy to publish scientific papers:
We aim to drive the costs of publishing down, while improving the overall publishing experience, and providing authors with a publication venue suitable for the 21st Century.
The pricing model is really interesting. Instead of a flat fee per paper PeerJ uses a lifetime author memberships. For $99 (total for life) you can publish 1 paper/year. For $199 you can publish 2 papers/year and for $299 you can publish unlimited papers for life. Every author has to have a membership so for a group of 5 authors publishing in PeerJ for the first time it would cost $495, but that’s still about 1/3 of what you’d pay at PLOS One and 1/6 of what you’d pay to make a paper open access at a Wiley journal. And that same group of authors can publish again next year for free. How can they publish for so much less than anyone else (and whether it is sustainable) is a bit of open question, but they have clearly spent a lot of time (and serious publishing experience) thinking about how to automate and scale publication in an affordable manner both technically and in terms things like typesetting (since single column text no attempt to wrap text around tables and figures is presumably much easier to typeset). If you “follow the money” as Brian McGill suggests then the path may well lead you to PeerJ.
Other cool things about PeerJ:
- Optional open review (authors decide whether reviews are posted with accepted manuscripts, reviewers decide whether to sign reviews)
- Ability to comment on manuscripts with points being given for good comments.
- A focus on making life easy for authors, reviewers, and editors, including a website that is an absolute joy compared to interact with and a lack of rigid formatting guidelines that have to be satisfied for a paper to be reviewed.
We want authors spending their time doing science, not formatting. We include reference formatting as a guide to make it easier for editors, reviewers, and PrePrint readers, but will not strictly enforce the specific formatting rules as long as the full citation is clear. Styles will be normalized by us if your manuscript is accepted.
Now there’s a definable piece of added value.
Faculty of 1000 Research
Faculty of 1000 Research‘s novelty comes from a focus on post-publication peer review. Like PLOS One & PeerJ it reviews based on quality rather than potential impact, and it has a standard per paper pricing model. However, when you submit a paper to F1000 it is immediately posted publicly online, as a preprint of sorts. They then contact reviewers to review the manuscript. Reviews are posted publicly with the reviewers names. Each review includes a status designation of “Approved” (similar to Accept or Minor Revisions), “Approved with Reservations” (similar to Major Revisions), and “Not Approved” (similar to Reject). Authors can upload new versions of the paper to satisfy reviewers comments (along with a summary/explanation of the changes made), and reviewers can provide new reviews and new ratings. If an article receives two “Approved” ratings or one “Approved” and two “Approved with Reservations” ratings then it is considered accepted. It is then identified on the site as having passed peer review, and is indexed in standard journal databases. The peer review process is also open to anyone, so if you want to write a review of a paper you can, no invite required.
It’s important to note that the individuals who are invited to review the paper are recommended by the authors. They are checked to make sure that they don’t have conflicts of interest and are reasonably qualified before being invited, but there isn’t a significant editorial hand in selecting reviewers. This could be seen as resulting in biased reviews, since one is likely to select reviewers that may be biased towards liking you work. However, this is tempered by the fact that the reviewers name and review are publicly attached to the paper, and therefore they are putting their scientific reputation on the line when they support a paper (as argued more extensively by Aarssen & Lortie 2011).
In effect, F1000 is modeling a system of exclusively post-publication peer review, with a slight twist of not considering something “published/accepted” until a minimum number of positive reviews are received. This is a bold move since many scientists are not comfortable with this model of peer review, but it has the potential to vastly speed up the rate of scientific communication in the same way that preprints do. So, I for one think this is an experiment worth conducting, which is why I recently reviewed a paper there.
Oh, and ecologists can currently publish there for free (until the end of the year).
Frontiers in X
I have the least personal experience with the Frontiers’ journals (including the soon to launch Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution). Like F1000Research the ground breaking nature of Frontiers is in peer review, but instead of moving towards a focus on post-publication peer review they are attempting to change how pre-publication review works. They are trying to make review a more collaborative effort between reviewers and authors to improve the quality of the paper.
As with PeerJ and F1000Research, Frontiers is open access and has a review process that focuses on “the accuracy and validity of articles, not on evaluating their significance”. What makes Frontiers different is their two step review process. The first step appears to be a fairly standard pre-publication peer review, where “review editors” provide independent assessments of the paper. The second step (the “Interactive Review phase”) is where the collaboration comes in. Using an “Interactive Review Forum” the authors and all of the reviewers (and if desirable the associate editor and even the editor in chief for the subdiscipline) work collaboratively to improve the paper to the point that the reviewers support its publication. If disagreements arise the associate editor is tasked with acting as a mediator in the conversation. If a paper is eventually accepted then the reviewers names are included with the paper and taken as indicating that they sign off on the quality of the paper (see Aarssen & Lortie 2011 for more discussion of this idea; reviewers can withdraw from the process at any point in which case their names are not included).
I think this is an interesting approach because it attempts to make the review process a friendlier and more interactive process that focuses on quickly converging through conversation on acceptable solutions rather than slow long-form exchanges through multiple rounds of conventional peer review that can often end up focusing as much on judging as improving. While I don’t have any personal experiences with this system I’ve seen a number of associate editors talk very positively about the process at Frontiers.
This post isn’t intended to advocate for any of these particular journals or approaches. These are definitely experimental and we may find that some of them have serious limitations. What I do advocate for is that we conduct these kinds of experiments with academic publishing and support the folks who are taking the lead by developing and test driving these systems to see how they work. To do anything else strikes me as accepting that current academic publishing practices are at their global optimum. That seems fairly unlikely to me, which makes the scientist in me want to explore different approaches so that we can find out how to best evaluate and improve scientific research.
UPDATE: Fixed link to the Faculty of 1000 Research paper that I reviewed. Thanks Jeremy!
UPDATE 2: Added a missing link to Faculty of 1000 Research’s main site.
UPDATE 3: Fixed the missing link to Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution. Apparently I was seriously linking challenged this morning.
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:
- More rapid communication and discussion of important scientific results
- Improved quality of published research by allowing for more extensive pre-publication peer review
- A fair mechanism for establishing precedence that is not contingent the idiosyncrasies of formal peer review
- 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.