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