For the past three years, scientists have been going to school in a giant lab whether they realized it or not. The…
Why engage with preprints?
This post was co-written by Dan Morgan, Director of Community Relations; Rebecca Kirk, Associate Editorial Director, Madison Crystal, Brand Communications Manager; and Veronique Kiermer; Publisher and Executive Editor
Preprints enable authors to share their work early, openly, and in a way that is free from journal influence or stylistic preferences. They also open up possibilities for pre-publication commentary that have previously been limited to a group of trusted confidants and hand-selected (often anonymous) peer reviewers invited by the editors. The opening up of comments via email, Twitter, or on the preprint server has the potential to expand the number of voices involved in the peer review of manuscripts, to allow the development of a preprint in parallel with the formal peer review, and to accelerate the research process.
To explore these opportunities, we recently launched a preprint commenting pilot, which will enable handling editors at PLOS Journals* to better access and utilize comments left on preprinted submissions for consideration in their review of the manuscript.
While the announcement speaks for itself, we also wanted to give more context for our work in engaging with preprints and facilitating comments more broadly. Driven by our work alongside the research community, these fall into three major strategic directions:
1. A more equitable platform for community review
PLOS has always sought the most equitable systems of publishing, for all research and researchers. In preprints we have a posting and reviewing infrastructure that is not based on a closed database of reviewers end editorial board members, but open to all.
In one conversation we might hear from editors who say they struggle to find reviewers for papers, and in another conversation we hear from scientists, especially early career researchers, who are looking for an opportunity to review or edit for a journal, but are not being invited. Editorial work is often labeled as a “volunteer” activity, but it is less a system of volunteering and more a system of being known and chosen, in the current setup. And the best chance of being chosen, of course, lies with those who have been chosen in the past.
By promoting preprints and their commenting infrastructure, PLOS is attempting to even more equitably open up editorial activity to all who have something to offer. And the various tools, vendors, publishers companies (e.g. TRiP, plaudit, hypothes.is, ORCiD, etc.) are developing the infrastructure to enable it.
2. Published outputs should be shaped by the scholarly process, and not by publishers’ preferences or requirements.
PLOS has long empowered scientists to publish great science. Our work as a publisher is essential and important, but it is not a proxy to judge the quality of our authors’ articles. Our journals are selective against a spectrum of criteria, but our efforts are always in partnership with the community whose activities we facilitate.
Some publishers, while they allow submissions that have been preprints, do not engage with them because they view them as a force that is too publisher- or journal-independent — a publishing movement that may one day reduce or even remove the need for journal brands completely. We see an opportunity to learn from our community.
In many ways, preprints represent the purest form of published output. While authors generally still follow standard article conventions, and many preprints have emerged from parallel posting alongside submission to PLOS, this is not a requirement. For PLOS it is extremely interesting to see how authors choose to write up their work when it is being posted on a preprint server, and not being “prepared” for a specific journal or editorial approach. Our hope is that a preprint culture helps empower authors to share their work early, often, and in their preferred way.
3. More editorial activity is better for all concerned, including researchers but also publishers, and may save everyone time
Our pilot for flagging bioRxiv comments to editors is an attempt to see how useful such comments on preprints are for handling editors, how easy it is for us to identify and push them to the attention of editors, and whether this activity speeds up the reviewing process, increases the diversity of voices reviewing, AND encourages more people to comment on preprints. But the manuscript peer review will not solely rely on this new process–it is in parallel with the standard process and editors will consider the comments at their own discretion, based on how useful they determine the comments to be.
Additionally, for publishers, we believe there is always a need for more reviewers and more editors (especially when you operate one of the biggest journals in the world in PLOS ONE!). We can’t think of a better way to expand the universe of relevant editorial activity than by both enabling a training and providing an open ground for new reviewers to demonstrate their expertise. The availability and openness of preprint comments, in conjunction with our new published peer review history option, is finally surfacing the richness of these activities and resources and. And, as such, we look forward to the training and empowering of more diverse voices and to ever more early career reviewers to joining the process.
We are expecting the results of the pilot to be mostly qualitative — the reality being that at the moment only 10% of bioRxiv preprints receive comments — but we will seek opinions from editors and authors about their experience and we will share our learnings broadly.
The three strategic directions above focus on how engaging with preprints and comments may improve the publishing and reviewing process itself, and move it closer to a fully equitable, community-driven practice. But it would be remiss to not also mention the importance of the increased potential for credit for all research activity, which we will focus on in a future blog post. In short, and in advance, there are many ways that these preprint initiatives are natural extensions of our passion for surfacing credit for all researchers in their activities, already including the CRediT taxonomy and ORCID for Reviewers. More in due course!
In the spirit of open, please do leave us comments and questions below!
*The commenting trial is available on submissions to PLOS Computational Biology, PLOS Genetics, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and PLOS Pathogens