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The what, why, and how of preprints and peer review

Preprints: what they are how they can help improve your research skills.

Preprint servers have been around for almost three decades [1], so if you’re a researcher, chances are you’ve heard of these by now.

Preprint servers were created to speed up scholarly publishing and allow authors to receive peer feedback on their preprint manuscripts before they submit it to a journal [2]. Some journals don't allow for this: they don't want any version of a manuscript to have been printed elsewhere even as a preprint. Other journals, however, don't mind or even welcome it [3].

We're a big fan of preprints at Publons. We see these servers as a great way to advance research, boost discoverability, and to improve the professional development of researchers and reviewers.

With that in mind, this blog post will demonstrate how you can use preprints to get ahead in job and funding applications, and to enhance your writing, research, and reviewing skills.

Let's start off by taking a look at the preprint landscape and seeing which servers are currently out there for you to benefit from.

What are the different preprint servers?

The most well-known preprint server is probably arXiv (pronounced like ‘archive’). It started as a server for preprints in physics and has since expanded out to various subjects, including mathematics, computer science, and economics. The arXiv server is now run by the Cornell University Library and contains 1.37 million preprints so far.

The Open Science Framework provides an open source framework to help researchers and institutions set up their own preprint servers. One such example is SocArXiv for the Social Sciences. On their website you can browse more than 2 million preprints, including preprints on arXiv, and many of them have their own preprint digital object identifier (DOI). In cases where the preprint has now been published it also links to the publication’s DOI.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory set up bioaRxiv, a preprint server for Biology in 2013 to complement arXiv. The bioaRxiv server has a direct transfer service to several journals such as Science and PNAS [4, 5] and a bit over 60% of papers in bioaRxiv end up published in peer reviewed journals [6].

In more recent years a lot of new servers have popped up covering almost every field including the social sciences, arts, and humanities fields. Here’s a quick overview of some of the rest:

What about the medical and health sciences?

The medical and health sciences is the only field lacking a dedicated preprint server at the moment. The reason behind this is in part due to the implications of sharing non-peer reviewed research with the general public [7].

Imagine a popular news outlet running a headline story based on research that has not yet been peer reviewed, or a patient wanting to try a new therapeutic drug they have read about without understanding the difference between something being screened for a preprint server and actually being peer reviewed?

Yale University are in talks with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who run bioaRxiv to set up a MedaRxiv server but the announcement has had mixed feedback [8]. One thing is for certain to garner a positive respose: it needs to be clear to the wider public what a preprint server is and why peer review is the recognized standard for maintaining the quality and integrity of research.

The benefits of preprints

Showcasing your expertise

Now we’ve learned a bit about which preprint servers are out there, it's time to look at how they can benefit you.

Since 2017, the Wellcome Trust in the UK has allowed researchers to cite preprints in grant applications and end-of-grant review reports [9]. This means that they recognize preprints as a valid early form of publication.

That’s great news for researchers and reviewers!


That's because it can help you:

  • Bulk up your publications list: if you’re applying for funding or a new job it might make a lot of sense to be able to add more items to your ‘published publications list’ rather than under ‘submitted’ or ‘in print’.

  • Showcase your expertise: following on from the point above, if you have not reviewed a whole lot yet you could link to open reviews you’ve written on preprints to highlight your skills.

  • Make your research more discoverable: you may want a larger readership and to release your research without the typical wait with a journal. If you publish a piece of research as a preprint you can start sharing it on social media and get traction and citations before it’s formally published in a journal.

There are a bunch more benefits we can add to this list, including using preprints to provide a timestamp for your ideas or method, and making a home for scholarly content that would otherwise be lost (particularly pertinent with replication studies and negative results). You can find more on these points in this article.

Sharpening your research and review skills

Last year we launched the free, online Publons Academy because training in peer review was lacking. We heard as much from researchers across all career stages - especially reviewers new to the scene. Many told us they were not confident enough to accept those first review invitations, while others said they did not know how to get into reviewing and connect with journal editors.

This is a key reason why peer review training courses are essential to the health of the system - and central to the theme for this year's Peer Review Week in September: diversity and inclusion in peer review.

Preprints help to bridge that gap in learning. We actively encourage researchers to benefit from this movement during the Publons Academy because they offer:

  • New research to learn from and critique
  • A way to showcase your skills and expertise in your field
  • A chance to connect with researchers in your line of work
  • Insight into how other researchers are looking at and learning from new research

To review a preprint on Publons: simply go to your private dashboard and under Review Records select ‘Add review’. Preprints are considered published on Publons so click the post-publication review option, then simply add in the title and the DOI or arXiv ID, and then write your review. Publons also has an integration with preprints.org allowing any comments written on their site to be optionally added as a post-publication review on submission.

Top tips to critically review a preprint

Ready to start reviewing your first preprint? A little while back we asked Publons Academy Advisor, Elisabeth Bik for advice on how to read a manuscript critically. As her advice almost directly relates to preprints as well, we thought we'd share it here, too:

  1. Do you have a conflict of interest when reviewing this paper? Do you collaborate with these authors, are they your personal friends, or are they direct competitors? Have you reviewed (and rejected) this paper before? If so, you need to let the editors know.

  2. Do the title and abstract cover the main aspects of the work, would it spark interest to the right audience?

  3. Is the Introduction easy to follow for most readers of this particular journal? Does it cite the appropriate papers? Does it provide a hypothesis or aim of the study?

  4. Does the Methods section provide enough details for the general reader to repeat the experiments?

  5. If you skip the Methods, does the Results section give the right amount of detail to understand the basic details of the experiments?

  6. Do the Results refer to the figures in a logical order? Do the numbers in the tables add up correctly? Are any figures/tables mislabeled or unclear?

  7. Given the data that was obtained in this study, did the authors perform all the logical analyses? Did they include the proper controls?

  8. Does the Discussion address the main findings, and does it give proper recognition to similar work in this field?

  9. In general, is the paper easy to follow and does it have a logical flow? Are there any language issues?

  10. Did the authors make all their data (e.g. sequence reads, code, questionnaires used) available for the readers?

  11. Is this paper novel and an advancement of the field, or have other people done very similar work?

  12. Finally (and hopefully you will never have to answer yes to any of these questions): Does the paper raise any ethical concerns? Any suspicion of plagiarism (text or experiments), duplicated or tampered images, lack of IRB approval, unethical animal experiments, or "dual use of research concern"?

You can read our full blog post with Elisabeth, here.

To learn more about peer review and to improve your peer review skills you can sign up to our (newly-improved!) course, the Publons Academy.

If you’re interested in becoming a peer review mentor and helping early career researchers learn how to peer review then express your interest to become a mentor and encourage your students to sign up.

This post was written by Julia T. Vilstrup Mouatt, Head of Publons Academy. If you have any feedback we'd love to hear from you. Either leave a comment below or get in touch at academy@publons.com

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