Preprints in science

I’ve recently been having a discussion with a colleague on Twitter about preprints in science, and thought it would be good to open the discussion here. For those of you that don’t know, preprints are where you publish your manuscript before it goes to peer review. The most common and well known means of doing this is by publishing a manuscript on the arXiv, where most physicists post their papers before submitting to a journal. Some journals don’t allow this as they consider it to be previously published, but most permit this and in some cases even encourage it, as people can comment on it before going to peer review.

Despite it’s prominence in physics, biology and other sciences (I’m thinking of palaeontology of course) have been particularly slow on the uptake of this, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but my colleague shared these views and was not convinced by the preprint process. On one hand, I understand some of the hesitations he mentioned. Preprints are essentially the first submission to a journal, wrought with errors (mostly just typos, but sometimes some scientific errors as well), which could cause some miscommunications to the public or to other scientists when errors get propagated in the literature or media. Also, preprints are not peer reviewed. While I agree that peer review has it’s issues, I do still believe that it has a place in academia and is important. Articles published in preprints have not been properly peer reviewed, which could lead to fringe ideas or studies that have not been properly scrutinised being read and cited. I understand both of these concerns, but I think that in the issue of preprints, they are not particularly valid for several reasons.

1. The arXiv has been working in physics for over 20 years, in fact longer than the World Wide Web. They’ve had a lot of time to make it work the way they want it to. Once an article is posted on the arXiv, that article has priority. This means that if two (or say 10) groups around the world are working on the same problem, whoever gets it onto the arXiv first gets priority and is recognised as being first, without having to wait for months for it to go through peer review. Of course there will be typos and errors, but the general theme of the paper and description of the experiment or study is still the same. If you’re working in a field where other people are working on similar things, this is essential. Why should your work be held up and you be prevented from having priority just because the journal you submitted to is slower? Or a reviewer is away at a conference or on field work? Or a reviewer is one of the other people working on this and wants to slow you down, knowing they have a paper in review? It takes out those human aspects of the system that slow it down. Having gone through this before, I would much rather have had the uncorrected manuscript of my first paper published immediately, rather than waiting the excruciatingly stressful year from acceptance to publication (plus the 6 months before that that it was in review, etc.), waiting for someone else to publish something similar. Preprints allow you to get priority there and then.

2. We know that work in preprints is not peer-reviewed, or edited, and some people have concerns that any incorrect information will be propagated. First of all, we are scientists, we are not idiots. We know that preprints are not peer reviewed, and for this reason, when reading a preprint, you should not expect it to be perfect, and take that into account. When reading a preprint on the arXiv, readers are cautious. Papers from the arXiv can be cited, but physicists won’t cite specific details or quote lines on a paper on the arXiv. They will, however, cite general ideas of the paper – “Smith et al. (2015) was the first to do an experiment using X, Y, and Z.” – because regardless of peer review or not, they WERE first.

3. This point is related to the first two. I mentioned earlier that some journals (in physics) actually prefer and actively encourage publication on the arXiv before submitting to the journal. The reasons for this are simple – authors are essentially getting unsolicited peer review, and allowing for their paper to be publicly scrutinised long before publication. For a journal, this means that if they’ve received a paper to review, and find that it’s already made it to the press, and been heavily scrutinised by the relevant parties in the world BEFORE even going to peer review, and all the talk is positive, it’s a shoe-in for publication. Job done. Or, imagine getting a paper to peer review and finding that it has already been cited. Congrats, your paper gets a gold star. A recent example of this happened a few weeks ago when a big physics paper was posted on the arXiv. I won’t go into details because I’m not a physicist (and probably most of you aren’t either), but essentially it solved a massive problem in quantum photonics doing something that had never been managed before. It was such a big story, that within days of the preprint going up, it had been covered by New Scientist, Nature, PhysOrg, Science, etc., without even being officially peer-reviewed. And of course what did this mean? It meant that groups around the world who work on this field immediately bunkered down for the day, dissecting the paper and experiment, and coming to the conclusion that they had done it right. This paper is likely going to be published in Nature or something very similar, and it’s already got a huge stamp of approval on it. We’re talking Nature guys. It’s not just small journals that take papers that have been on preprints – Nature actually prefers physics papers that have been on the arXiv. Less work for them!

4. Finally, for those interested in open access, this means that regardless of where your manuscript ends up in the end, your research is accessible to everyone. You don’t need a university ID or have to pay for papers that are preprints. While you could publish your paper in Nature and have the joy of a big fancy Nature paper, anyone in the world can still read your research and see what you did from the preprint.

So what are the downsides? What are the concerns that people have?:

  • Someone could steal my work – well actually no, they couldn’t, because the preprint would mean that you had priority. If it becomes a big thing in biology, everyone would see you posted it first. No one can take it from you
  • But what about all the mistakes? It’s not peer reviewed – I think I’ve gone through this pretty well, but essentially, it’s more about the big picture than the nitty gritty details.
  • Why would a journal publish something already online? – because it gives them free, easy, and quick peer review, and a good idea of what the community thinks about the paper.
  • How does it benefit me? Why not just wait for the final paper instead of an unformatted manuscript? – because this is fast. Peer review can be so slow. And is subject to people with agendas. Your paper shouldn’t be delayed because someone doesn’t like you or is doing something similar. You should still get priority if you did it first.
  • But how do I know what happened to the preprint afterwards? – on the arXiv, there is a system that authors can upload additional versions and updates. Once a paper is listed, you can upload additional versions when they come back from review, just as manuscript files. This way anyone can see exactly what has changed between versions throughout peer review, and then at the end, a link to the final published paper is given. It’s an easy way to track exactly what they changed from one version to the next, so you know if it was a major experimental problem, or just some typos.
  • If there are other concerns, please let me know!

This discussion actually started from my colleague being unhappy that his uncorrected, unformatted accepted manuscript had been posted by the journal, rather than waiting 2 weeks for the final to come out. Of course this is a bit different, because it had already been through peer review and was accepted, but I think that the general topic of speed is still relevant here. If you are 100% positive that no one in the world has looked at the same thing as you and won’t come out with the same paper in the next 2 weeks, then that’s fine. But imagine if someone else out there is working on it? Wouldn’t you want it out there ASAP regardless of a few typos?

As far as I can see, there are no downsides to preprints, once the community accepts them. In biology, we are still woefully behind in this regard, that many journals do not accept manuscripts that have been put as preprints, and current nomenclature acts may prevent things like species being named in preprints. But this can change, and it is slowly starting to. PeerJ now offers a preprint server, which people are starting to submit to.

Please please please comment if you have anything related to this to discuss. I’m curious about what other people think about preprints. I know the view of physicists and some biologists, but I’m interested in other views. What do you think about preprints or uncorrected/unformatted proofs?

Thanks Josh – Obviously, I’m not a physicist, but my partner Josh is. Through years of him posting papers on the arXiv I’ve gained perhaps a better understanding of how it works than many non-physicists, and thanks to him for answering all my questions and pointing me to specific articles I would find useful in this discussion.

EDIT: Previously this post suggested that the journal Science did not allow for their papers to be published elsewhere as preprints. As you can see from the comments below, that was previously their policy, but is not anymore. Papers in Science can indeed appear as preprints elsewhere.

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45 thoughts on “Preprints in science

  1. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. In the end, none of the reasons not to post preprints stand up to scrutiny. If Bill Parker had posted a preprint of his Heliocanthus paper, for example it would never have been scooped. Preprints offer far more protection against such behaviour then they do facilitation for it.

    Notably, PeerJ Preprints have a bright red line at the very top of the page saying “NOT PEER-REVIEWED. This is a rapid communication before peer review”. See for example our Barosaurus preprint. I think it would take a careless scientist indeed to confuse such a preprint with a peer-reviewed article. Yet, whatever changes the final article may contain in interpretation, the specimen photos, measurements and description in the preprint remain solid, citeable information.

    Go, preprints!

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  2. Thanks Mike! The only time I can see when preprints would be an issue is when it comes to naming new species. On one hand I think it could prevent problems of 2 people publishing different names of the same animal at the same time, but I think it does open doors a bit to people just naming new species for the sake of it. I think that there would need to be some strict rules put in place, but in general, it would prevent possible conflicts with people having material in review at the same time.

    But other than that, if it's worked in physics for 20 years, why would it suddenly be an issue for other sciences now?

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  3. >

    Actually, it's better that people don't format a preprint as if it were going to a journal, but as a reasonably polished product: tables, figures etc in situ and single line spacing. There's no reason to put out ugly preprints!

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  4. Interesting point on taxonomic names. PeerJ Preprints actively forbids you from naming a genus or species in a preprint, which I think is a mistake (though I understand the reasoning). I increasingly feel the best approach is just to get the information out there and let the ashes fall where they may.

    However, there is an easy alternative: just remove the name itself from the preprinted manuscript and use prose like “gen. nov. (Name to be announced in published version)”. That's what I did for the “Hotel Mesa sauropod” chapter of my dissertation (later to be published as Brontomerus mcintoshi in Acta Pal Pol). Conveniently, bringing the discussion full circle, that dissertation is available on arXiv — I am one of I think only a few palaeontologists who have used arXiv.

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  5. Hey Liz,

    Interesting post, and thanks for bringing this all to the attention of the palaeo community! You raise some great points, and I agree overall that there's very little reason to not embrace the use of pre-prints these days. Especially now that HEFCE mandates that the AAM (post-print) has to be archived within 6 months of publication too. Together, this takes power away from journals, as well as alleviates potential issues in paying APCs – why would anyone pay thousands of dollars to make an article OA, when a version of it already is? Similarly, why pay $32 to access an article, when what is essentially a less pretty version of it is open for free, and readily citable?

    Imagine a publishing system for Palaeo where we all use pre-prints as a community, and the role of journals is simply to curate these collections and add secondary functions like type-setting, copy editing etc. You can pay for these, if you see a value to them (like with the SciELO platform). With the widespread availability of AAMs, you can remove almost all aspects of cost from the system entirely. And maintain a semblance of journal ranking too, if that's your thing.

    There's an error regarding Science, which do allow publishing of both the pre-print and post-print versions of an MS, according to SHERPA/RoMEO (http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/search.php), although it never hurts to contact an Editor in advance (while highlighting this). There are restrictions too, it seems, like waiting until publication of the final MS, but it seems it's still allowed overall.

    Re. the peer review issue, it's a tough one. What's of more value? Closed peer review by two (or more) anonymous referees, or open peer review from (potentially) the entire scientific community (and further). Which one do you think is more likely to catch out any fundamental errors? As you say, there are no downsides to being more open about this.

    Don't forget that we already have a biology pre-print server, bioRxiv! With a grand total of 4 palaeontology pre-prints so far.. http://biorxiv.org/collection/paleontology Note that you get a DOI for submission here. All the layered functionality exists there too.

    Note that PeerJ pre-prints also won't accept pre-prints if a new species is named, as this affects the priority for publication under the ICZN.

    Also, most journals in Palaeontology do allow pre-prints! A few still don't, like ZJLS, and I think JVP, but the majority do (Ross has a list somewhere..)

    So one of the problems with all this is society journals. If these allow pre-prints, there is the risk that societies could see a drop in income from subscriptions. There have been a couple of studies that have shown that this isn't the case (also outlined in the RCUK reports on OA), but that's not to say that it could happen in the future as pre-print culture accelerates. Then of course you raise the question of whether societies should have an income source based on prohibiting access to research, but I'm not touching that here..

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  6. So while the difference between a pre-print and a formally peer-reviewed article might be obvious to an academic, it might be less obvious to other members of the non-academic public, including journalists. There's always going to be the risk that something is published, communicated more broadly, and then found to be incorrect. There have been a couple of documented instances of this, I think in physics. While this is a potential issue, it probably shouldn't be used as a scare tactic against pre-prints though!

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  7. Really glad to see you write this! We really do need to get the community to embrace this. I feel I have been prevented from preprint-ing one of my thesis chapters because one or more authors feel uncomfortable about it. As a consequence almost no-one has seen this work except at a few conferences 😦 I think preprints are brilliant and I encourage everyone to embrace preprint culture.

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  8. Some of this is covered / argued with above but I'll put this here in my own words. Personally I really can't see the attraction – obviously it is working for physics and lots of people in biol/palaeo seem to see the benefits but I can't.

    In short: 1. We know it's not peer reviewed, but that doesn't mean errors in it won't be cited and assumed to be correct.

    2. I don't see much of the pre-review process – referees are hardly reviewing actual papers well, let alone things yet to be submitted. If I want comments on my MS I send it to people I know who will give me real feedback, not put it out into the wilds.

    3. Getting priority on it is actually a concern. You can (and I'm sure some will) deliberately submit incompletely produced papers in order to get a pile of ideas out there and claim priority. This could get really ugly with taxonomy for new names especially).

    4. It can be hard enough to keep up with the current literature let alone when there might be multiple versions of a manuscript out there which say different things.

    I do see that it helps get ideas out there and you can solicit feedback etc. but that's also true of sending things to colleagues and presenting at conferences etc. I can see some huge messes coming if people are in a position where rushing out the preprint means you can get priority on ideas / names / specimens and then relax about producing the actual paper as you've got a declared interest in the public sphere.

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  9. Mike – that's an interesting idea for the taxonomy issue. I see how it could work, but I also see why the community could have problems with it. But that sounds like a potential solution that could work should the idea of preprints and new taxa become something people really start pushing.

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  10. Thanks for the comments Jon! I'll fix the issue about Science in a minute. I had been given erroneous information! Apparently it used to be Science's policy not to accept manuscripts that had been presented elsewhere (including preprints, conferences, etc.), but after some pressure from the community they have since allowed it. Will fix that in the blog.

    Yes, there is bioRxiv, you're right, but as you point out, it's not really taken off in palaeo for whatever reason. There is starting to be a push for this in the life sciences side of thing, but we're still miles behind physics.

    I find your point about society journals interesting. I never thought of it that way, and find it crazy to think that their income would decrease. I am not a member of any societies because of access to journals. I'm a member because it allows me to have cheaper registration at conferences, access to additional material behind their websites, access to funding sources, etc. Journal access has never been the main gain for me because whatever institution I'm at typically does it for me. I mean surely physics societies would have the same issues and haven't been negatively impacted?

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  11. I don't see how this is any different from people citing conference abstracts or theses that have never been peer reviewed. In fact this is infinitely better, in my opinion, then when people reference conference abstracts. Drives me nuts because if you weren't at the conference, you have little information about what the actually did. And theses can be notoriously difficult to get your hands on, but people cite them all the time. At least this way everyone has access to the same information that is online and in full, even if not peer reviewed.

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  12. But papers get through peer review every day that have massive errors and issues in it. Peer review is not a magical thing that makes every paper perfect. If a paper gets published in a journal that has scientific errors in it, those get brought up later when people cite the paper, which is the same as would happen with preprints.

    After talking to physicists about this, we basically came to the conclusion that in order for preprints to work, it relies on people being, basically, mature adults. Papers go up on the arXiv that are bunk and known to be crap, but the community recognises it and those papers get ignored. More often than that, papers go up that are good papers, and the vast majority of them go on to be published in legitimate journals. But they are up there open for everyone to see, when the ideas are finalised, to show they published it first. I think that priority is important, but as I mentioned above, agree that maybe with taxonomy it could be an issue. But that doesn't preclude priority in using a new method to look at thin sections, or describing a new specimen of dinosaur that shows some cool feature, or being the first to discuss pterosaur foot biomechanics, etc. These things can be done in preprint easily, with no problems with ICZN. So many issues could have been prevented if the whole community posted things in the same place when they had it ready to be submitted to a journal, and you wouldn't have as many taxonomic fails where two people publish two different names within months of each other for the same group because they didn't know the other was doing it.

    I don't understand your concern about multiple versions of a manuscript. Have you ever done a complete 180 degree turn in a paper between submission to acceptance? Probably not. I don't think that papers MASSIVELY change their main conclusions after they go through review. They change some discussion, or they add some references, or they add an extra experiment, but the general story is still there. And on the arXiv, all of these versions are easy to see. You upload one version, then when it comes back from review, you update it with the new version, and in the end, you post a link to the final version. Anyone who was interested in your original arXiv post can then see the final published version.

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  13. I think the only reason BiorXiv hasn't taken off in palaeo (apart from its ungainly name) is that PeerJ has a head-start in our community, so it's natural to use its preprint service.

    As for society journals: this kind of argument is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Societies exist to further their scholarly field. The best way to further the field is to make research available. So any society that tries to prevent that has become an impediment to its own mission. But, happily, I have never heard of a society being so short-sighted that it will not allow its journal to publish articles that have been pre-printed.

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  14. No of course peer review is not a magic cure-all, but it does at the very least serve as a basic filter process that removes a lot of rubbish (both rubbish paper and rubbish bits of papers). I know it's far from perfect, but preprints do seem like carte blanche to publish basically anything. Sure the majority of people will always ignore good bad papers, but preprints mean that total nonsense has not even had that filter and you have to potentially wade through it.

    I'm painfully aware that while most people will use it responsibly, some won't and those that won't can potentially create a huge mess or at least make it harder for responsible people to do good work.

    Yes, some things will be good to get out early I agree, but again that relies on people acting appropriately (e.g. putting up a preprint only when it's already a near finished project, probably already in review and likely out soon-ish anyway).

    I've never gone through a complete 180 on a whole paper but I'm aware of people finding major flaws in analyses or having misreported major things caught at the proofs stage, let alone during review, so certainly incorrect statements or even entire analyses might be being reported on and cited that are not actually ever going to appear formally.

    I guess my objections mostly comes down to three things. 1. some people will abuse it and cause havoc that's not possible / much harder with the current system, 2. I dislike the rush / pressure to get in first on things and provide scope for scientists to push against each other and this can escalate it and I guess 3. I don't see much advantage much of the time over more traditional methods if referees would just hurry up a bit (which is a separate issue of course).

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  15. One question I have concerning the “open peer review” in things like PeerJ Preprints is, if the community will actually peer-review at all. In the one preprint I have published with PeerJ, we had a single comment. Through the regular review process you get people to comment on your research because people generally have the feeling they should review stuff, although it's noones favorite thing on Earth. I can see a lot of people publishing critical comments on certain Preprints before, but especially re-assuring reviews will be scarce, in my opinion.

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  16. “Preprints do seem like carte blanche to publish basically anything.”

    Well, David, if you believe this then the burden of proof is on you to show some evidence — any evidence — that arXiv is full of rubbish. Because the ubiquitous consensus of those who use it is that this is not the case.

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  17. It's entirely possible that papers won't get comments, even if that is what you are hoping for, but I don't think that's a reason not to do it. But if that is what you are looking for, then I completely agree with Mike. Send it to colleagues, make sure people see it, and tell them that you want feedback. That was the reason I did the poster I did at SVPCA, because I wanted feedback on something unfinished. Then when I saw people go by that I thought could comment, I grabbed them and asked them to comment.

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  18. Every system (including the current one) has potential misuse and abuse…what sort of scholarly community are we if we let a few “what if's” from possible bad apples circumvent any change?

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  19. One interesting thought on following this discussion – so many arguments for and against preprints apply equally well to presenting work at conferences! E.g., 'claim-jumping' (and protection from such), hazards and benefits of unreviewed work, etc.

    Something I need to think about more.

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  20. I agree with that Andy. Nothing at conferences is peer-reviewed, but you can still present and reference conference abstracts. Anything on a preprint is the same situation, except there are more details than any abstract.

    I feel like arguing against preprints seems to also argue against publicising ANYTHING before they are published.

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  21. Just to add another point: for people who want to read scientific publications, but for one reason or another don't have access to the full paper (for the moment or in the long term), the fact that there's extra content in the preprint archive is not really a problem. People know that a preprint archive isn't a journal, and will usually be looking for a specific thing that someone referenced, or that they heard of in sci-related news, etc.
    What is a problem is if the preprint of a published paper isn't in there.

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  22. To me, points (3.) and (4.) are rather compelling.
    I think what's important for the practice of publishing preprints is that the scientific community in the field simultaneously develops a culture of sorts, where being a professional means, among other things, that you are responsible for keeping the quality of your published work as high as possible – published preprints included.
    (And, as others have noted, the preprint publishing pkatform can provide support for this – such as means of uploading newer versions, etc.)

    P.S. That flag is absolutely awesome – I love it.

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  23. Have tried but got stuck in the pit of revise & resubmit gloom. Now working on a completely different project and don't have time for it. Bit of a shame really. If we used 'publish-then-filter' system there would be a lot less waste of research. At the end of the day, making research outputs public & peer-review & ranking/credit-giving are three separate processes. Why not treat them as such? Bundling them all together into one causes a lot of inefficiency.

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  24. My PeerJ Preprint (Dark Research), got like 6 or so comments. I really enjoyed the mix of expert commentary (Rod Page) and people from completely different fields to myself pitch-in. A really positive experience all in all. It's been cited now too, so I'm happy 🙂

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  25. Dave – after talking to my partner about this and getting it explained to me a bit better with how it works with the arXiv, I'm hoping this will maybe help with a few things.

    The way I understand it, there is a lot of junk on the arXiv. Not all of it is good science. BUT those papers get generally ignored, until they are proven to be good (i.e. until they go through peer review). Priority does not happen instantly as soon as you put the paper up as a preprint, but rather once your paper is properly published and peer reviewed, the priority stance is given from when the article was posted as a preprint. So you don't automatically gain priority just by posting a preprint, but if someone else happens to be working on the same thing at the same time, the priority will go to whoever posted the preprint first.

    From what I understand, people don't post half-baked papers. They post manuscripts that are being submitted for publication. So you shouldn't have just random ramblings of crap, but it should be clear, concise arguments, as a scientific paper would be. I mean maybe you have to set clear boundaries about what is accepted as a preprint (which is what PeerJ has done), but I still think it would work without some of the issues you think.

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  26. There are conferences where abstracts are peer-reviewed. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology gets so many abstracts for its annual meetings that it rejects 30% of them – based on how well they fare in peer review.

    Of course they're still abstracts. The reviewers don't get to see the actual data that hopefully back up the claims in the abstract.

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  27. Right. I don't think that is at all the same thing as “peer review” in the sense that it's usually used. It really amounts to “will this make an interesting talk? Because we have no idea whether the claims are actually supported.”

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  28. For me, Serjoscha hit the nail on the head above. The only reason that I might even consider a preprint would be if I genuinely thought that it was going to get enough useful comments and feedback that I would be able to significantly improve the actual submission. For this to happen though is going to require a substantial cultural shift because (above anecdotes from Mike and Ross aside), we currently don't this as a community.

    I'm unconvinced by the idea of preprints as a route to priority given modern publishing turnaround times – if want to get it out quick, write it up properly and send it to PeerJ! If you are concerned about getting scooped, don't send it to a journal with a two-year turnaround time.

    Also, call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I strongly dislike the idea of two versions of my manuscript existing. Many of my manuscripts have changed _radically_ during the peer review process, and there has been more than a single occasion when peer review has picked up mistakes that I would have been horrified about had they appeared in print. Peer review doesn't just pick-up typos – it very often leads to fundamental reanalyses and different results and conclusions. The distinction between preprints and postprints is not going to be apparent to the public, journalists, undergraduates etc. If those people are going to reading my paper I want them to see the final version.

    So, to go against the tide here: I find it difficult to see any value in preprints as things stand, and I won't be posting any in the near future.

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  29. Mike's exactly right: there's no way the Programme Committee can actually review the abstracts properly. Instead we are asking whether an abstract suggests a talk will be broadly interesting and use rigorous methodologies, and that it meets SVP abstract guidelines (e.g. it must have actual results, not be an announcement of intended research). So it's not comparable to peer review of publications.

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  30. Thanks for the comments Richard. I agree that some journals have faster publishing times, but of course there are many things to consider other than just publishing times. As students, we are constantly told that (regardless of how you feel about it) the journal you publish in and the impact factor matters. Even if there are problems with it, employers want numbers. So if I have a big find that is Nature worthy, or PNAS worthy, but I'm also aware that someone else is interested in the same thing, I should publish in PeerJ just to get it out faster? What if there was an option that allowed you to put it out there quickly so you have priority, but ALSO get a bigger name journal? If I could finish my PhD with a nature paper, that would be substantially better than a PeerJ one, according to pretty much any employer.

    I think that they key thing is that we DO need a cultural shift for this to work. It will only work if much of the community wants to make it work, not just 10 of us who have seen it work in other disciplines. As I've said in other comments, the stuff that goes onto the arXiv is not automatically viewed as good. I was told that the default view is that it's bad, unless proven otherwise.

    Maybe the arXiv model isn't perfect, and maybe it won't work for palaeontology, but I think that there are some benefits of it and I think that we could learn from it.

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  31. Hi Liz,

    Let's imagine you do have a result you think is Nature-worthy. Should you submit to Nature – absolutely! But I don't see any evidence that a pre-print will give you any protection apart from against direct plagiarism, which is almost non-existent. Someone else already working in the same area can still publish their paper first, perhaps legitimately claiming that they came to their conclusions independently, and potentially stop you getting your Nature paper. In fact, I suspect you might slightly increase your chance of getting scooped. Also, you would need to tread very, very carefully with any preprint for Nature or Science, as any media coverage of your preprint (which is difficult to stop sometimes) would almost certainly break their embargo policies.

    Summary: if I (or my students) had a potential Nature paper I would play my cards as close to my chest as possible, move as quick as I can, and definitely not post a preprint.

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  32. Mike,

    I don't think the preprint issue was at all responsible for the Heliocanthus issue. Parker already had a record of work (his thesis) that established priority. This was ignored by investigative committees of both a professional society (SVP) and a resident institution (NMMNH) that were assembled to address whether professional misconduct occurred. Both these committees chose to punt rather than address the issues of the case.

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  33. J Pardo, you're right: the problem with Rioarribasuchus scooping Heliocanthus is that the ICZN's policies on what counts as “published” excludes a dissertation but includes a not-really-peer-reviewed article in the NMMNH Bulletin. A preprint would also have been excluded, so the nomenclatural outcome would have been the same.

    A preprint would have been one more data-point for the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontologists' ethics committee to take into account; but since the evidence was already 100% rock solid and they chickened out, I don't see what difference it could have made.

    So, yes, that example was a mistake.

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  34. I don't see why people think that once they post a preprint, they can't then do anything with it. It happens not infrequently in mathematics that people update their preprints on the arXiv: add new results, remove incorrect statements, improve the exposition and so on. The last version of the preprint can be functionally identical to the last version before copyediting from the journal (subject to variations in what the publisher allows, but more publishers these days seem to allow some version to be posted, possibly with a delay). People sometimes even update the preprint *after* publication to improve on what was published, if something comes to light that warrants addressing, but this is less common. The persistent arXiv identifier points by default to the last version, but the older versions are linkable too, if people really want to cite specific pages of specific versions etc.

    Having preprints makes you take care with what you put out: if people are worried about what they submit to a journal being made public, what sort of work are they producing? Is it really that bad? [/sarcasm]

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  35. Hi Richard – You raise some valid points, and I think this is where the community shift comes in. As it stands right now in palaeontology, it may be that someone could publish that paper first in another faster journal while yours is in review in Nature, meaning they get priority. However, in physics (or at least in quantum physics, which my husband is in and he has been helping me understand that arXiv), that would not be the cast. If two papers are peer reviewed at the same time on a similar topic and one comes out first, priority would revert to who posted it on the arXiv first. OR they would share priority/credit. This seems unlikely to happy in palaeo because people generally seem less likely to share credit than in other fields. As for the embargo policy, I suppose that it would depend on how the journal feels like approaching it. While on paper it might break their embargo policy, it seems that the big papers turn a blind eye if it's something that is *that good*. After asking my husband, he said that just once he has seen a preprint hit the media, and that is the example I gave in my post. And he says that it is such a big paper that even if it breaks the embargo policy, it will still get published. Maybe this is a difference between physics and palaeo though. It may be more likely that palaeo stories will hit the news early if journalists happen to know where to look. However, I think that journalists almost exclusively get their information from press releases, so they still wouldn't be likely to see it before it's published

    Unknown – This is what I've been trying to say! Preprints get updated and it's easy to track what you've done. Additionally, you can comment on it so people know what's going on. For example, I suppose you could post a preprint, then if it never got published because you were working on a new project and didn't have time to deal with the reviewer comments, you could say that, and I suppose even say what the problems were with the manuscript so people know. That way you could still get the data/science out there so it's citable, but the public would know that it's not perfect.

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