Scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals have historically served as the primary means of communication for scientific data outside of conferences. However, as the publication review process has grown lengthier over time (even over a year in some cases), the scientific community has come up with a new way to get data out into the public sphere quickly to keep momentum while navigating the peer-review process – introducing the preprint.
A preprint is a full and complete draft of a scientific manuscript that has been uploaded to a public repository called a preprint server prior to (or during) the peer-review process. Examples of these servers in the life sciences include bioRxiv and medRxiv. Preprinting manuscripts offer some advantages and should be considered a key tool in our scientific communications toolbox.
First, preprinting your work ensures its accessibility. Once a preprint is submitted, it is open access and publicly available to everyone without the often-high price tags of a publisher. This open-door policy to science breaks down the silos that prevent people from gaining insight into a study in which they are interested. It can also garner feedback from other experts (and non-experts) to ultimately improve the work. The equal access to science that preprints provide has re-shaped the publishing world.
Second, timing of preprint submission and publication can be tightly controlled. Timing is everything – especially when developing communications strategies to support acceleration of a scientific program. Estimating when a peer-reviewed article will publish is nearly impossible. We gain insight based on historical (past) trends but often the windows are quite large and difficult to peg down. Preprints are straightforward, publishing within 48 hours of submission, effectively giving the authors control of when to publicly communicate their science. The life sciences field evolves quickly, and the slow-moving peer-review process cannot keep up.
Lastly, submitting a preprint does not preclude you from publishing in a peer-reviewed journal (most of the time), and the stamp of peer-review and acceptance is still the ultimate goal for most authors. While adoption of preprint servers by life scientists accelerated during COVID-19 due to the need for rapid scientific exchange, pre-print servers have been trusted forums for physical scientists for decades. As such, life science publishers are quickly following suit in accepting preprints for publication in their journals.
One major concern that some have over preprints is misinformation. It is impossible to know whether a particular study, either preprint or peer-reviewed, will eventually be discredited. Ultimately as authors and science communicators, it falls on our shoulders to accurately and transparently communicate the scientific discoveries that fuel the rapid advancements in the life sciences and shape the transformational therapies that result from it.
Continuously being at the forefront of scientific discovery requires rapid communication of those discoveries, and preprints offer a timely and accessible way to do that. Although preprints do not replace peer-reviewed articles, with preprints, scientific publications might finally be able to keep pace with the science.