‘Preprint servers are here to stay’, hears conference

Despite criticism over abstracts that are published and cited before undergoing peer review, preprint publications appear to be here to stay and are playing an important role in the fast and speedy dissemination of science.

They are contributing to the expedited sharing of data on health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and would have played a major role in addressing the HIV pandemic in the African continent, at the height of the disease.

Dating back to the early 1990s, they have been growing in prominence, especially in the West and in Africa they have been shooting to prominence over the past two years, thanks to COVID-19.

The world has seen a growing number of servers dedicated to the publications over the past 30 years, and the fact that the number of servers grew to 68 by 2021, owing to the pandemic, means they have a role that cannot be ignored.

Their popularity was motivated by the need for rapid solutions to tackle the coronavirus, said Miriam Sabin, a senior editor and preprints editor at The Lancet.

However, the beginning of their rise could be traced to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The toll it took demanded quick and urgent solutions to the crisis, the editor observed.

“I do not think they are going away. They are here to stay just the way the internet is here to stay … we just have to learn to live with them,” Sabin told delegates at the World Conference on Research Integrity hosted by the University of Cape Town, South Africa, from 28 May to 1 June.

Preprints, she noted, remain “early-stage research papers” that are posted on a public server but are yet to undergo peer review, meaning they could serve a limited but useful purpose in the world of academia.

“At The Lancet, preprints are primarily intended for research use, like conference abstracts or presentations, and intra-institutional discussions of research projects,” she noted.

“Once posted, the preprint becomes a permanent part of the scientific record and is citable with its own unique digital object identifier (DOI),” she added.

The risks of shifting reviewing

They are useful in that they provided real-time information and, like other open access platforms, helped to speed up data sharing in parallel with peer-review processes, becoming part of a new paradigm shift in publishing.

They have also become critical news sources, particularly for science journalists who routinely cover them, “elevating previously niche findings to mainstream news”, she said in her presentation on ‘The Role of Preprints in Global Health Emergencies: Risks and opportunities’.

However, this posed a risk in that “the examination process for scientific research has been shifted from scientific experts into the hands of science journalists,” she observed.

Besides the fact that the media can report incorrectly, preprints, she feared, can be ‘weaponised’ to advocate for treatments, or to lobby against treatments or vaccines by politicians and advocacy groups.

They could also jeopardise individual researchers and concerns are always that one could get their work being ‘scooped’ by others. On the other hand, some journals may not accept papers for publication if they have been posted on a preprint server.

As such, it was always advisable to clearly label a paper with a water mark as a preprint to clearly identify it. Discussing risks versus benefits of certain papers was, therefore, important, Sabin noted.

Whatever the risks and benefits, it was important to continue advocating for the importance of peer review by emphasising that it is not “replaceable by preprints”, the editor reiterated.

“At The Lancet, we reserve the right to remove a paper if a concern has been raised about its integrity, such as an ethical concern or data concern,” she said.

“We may also notify a university research committee that an investigation may be warranted and, if the investigation concludes that there was wrongdoing, we will post a note to that effect where the paper used to be on the serve,” she disclosed.

Making research more discoverable

Despite the risks, some people believe that preprints could be one of the things that Africa needs to increase its scientific output or make its research more visible.

One such advocate is Joy Owango, a member of the advisory board of Africa Archives (AfricArXiv), Africa’s first and only preprint server that says that they shorten the period an article takes before it is published, since preprints make works available online as soon as they are submitted.

“Ordinarily, the publishing process, from submission to review and final publication in a journal may take between three and 12 months and, in some cases, even longer when a paper is rejected,” she told University World News in March.

Delays, she said, affect the visibility of science, especially in Africa where research output is already low, making preprints necessary because they are able to make academic publishing more ‘rapid’ and, due to the fact that the servers operate under the principles of open science and open access, they make content more discoverable.

While many universities in Africa have their own repositories, they have infrastructural challenges that make the visibility of research a challenge, a problem that can be solved by preprints through indexing, she added.