My first preprint submission

My last post was about open access – making sure that your work is freely available after publication. However, I have also been experimenting with preprints – posting articles prior to publication for open peer review. PeerJ is one publishing model that has been gaining traction recently. They also offered free publication for a trial window and have a monkey as their mascot, so how could I resist? My paper, “Continental variation in wing pigmentation in Calopteryx damselflies is related to the presence of heterospecifics” is available now (with all the data used in the paper) at the PeerJ preprint site, while the manuscript is in review at the PeerJ journal. I thought it worthwhile reflecting on the experience and my growing support for this idea.

The current model of publishing goes something like this (time taken for each stage is listed in square brackets):

  1. Writing – Conduct research and write paper
    [highly variable]
  2. Submission – Submit paper to a journal of slightly higher status than you think your paper deserves in the hope of getting a lucky review
    [few hours to format and submit]
  3. Review – Your work is read by between one and four (usually two) referees who attempt to tear it to pieces. You don’t know who they are and they can be fickle!
    [between one week and several months]
  4. Decision – The editor contacts you to inform you of their decision
    [between one day and a month following return of referee comments]
  5. Revision – Very rarely will a paper pass through review unscathed. Usually there is a list of comments to which authors must respond
    [authors are typically given 4-6 weeks to respond]
  6. Review – Another round of reviews for the revised paper
    [between one week and several months]
  7. Decision – Another decision
    [between one day and a month following return of referee comments]
  8. Production – If successful, your submission will be queued for inclusion in an issue of the journal.  Hopefully the journal makes all articles available online beforehand so you don’t have to wait until the print issue
    [between one week and a month to be available online, up to a year for print]

If you do the math, you’ll see that the average time from completion of a manuscript to publication online is probably around six months, and that’s assuming you are successful at the first journal you try. Multiply that by the number of journals you send the manuscript to and suddenly it can be years before papers are published. Also, a small number of referees and editors act as gatekeepers for access to journals, meaning that there is a lack of consistency in how submissions are treated.

Preprints solve a number of problems with this workflow:

  • More reviews – a preprint article is available online and anybody can chip in comments for improvement. The reader can see the reviews alongside the paper. By including those reviews alongside their submission, authors not only demonstrate the quality of their work but also offer more assistance to editors who are frequently faced with tough decisions when referees do not agree.
  • Instant publication – while the initial submission may change before final publication, key findings will remain the same (unless something dramatic happens!), meaning that the gist of the paper and credit for the finding can be communicated without the need for publication in a journal. Preprint sites like PeerJ, Bioarxiv and Figshare assign DOIs (digital object identifiers) to preprints so that they can be cited just like any other paper while authors are waiting for the final version to work through the publication process.
  • Open access – a growing list of journals now allow posting to preprint servers, which (by definition) means that a version of the manuscript is publicly available. While this version may change before final publication, the majority of the paper is therefore already in the public domain what has all the benefits that I have discussed before.

There is nothing to be lost in publishing on preprint servers – the only thing to watch is that the journal to which you wish to submit the manuscript doesn’t mind. It’s certainly something I will be doing for my papers in the future. Next step (and the next thing I’ll discuss on this issue) is post-publication peer review, but that’s a whole different issue!

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