Either Or: preprints and peer review
For 350 years, peer review has been the primary method of validating or challenging new studies and theories in science and academia. Yet this age-old system has always been subject to attempts to improve, reinvent and even replace it. Moreover, peer review itself has produced its own mutations, but arguably the most significant challenge to its primacy has arisen in the form of the preprint.
The most obvious question that presents itself is why there is a need to develop an alternative method of evaluation and testing.
Perhaps the answer lies in the very fact that peer review now takes many different forms. Yet there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the belief that peer review guarantees the quality of academic articles , and so far, there has been no systematic study of representative samples in this area. Nevertheless, it appears to work, and this anecdotal proof is widely accepted.
What is a preprint?
Under the dictates of peer review, researchers don’t share their work until it has been published in a formal scientific or academic journal. A preprint circumvents this narrower approach.
It involves making a complete script widely accessible through a range of public and academic repositories such as bioRxiv and PeerJ. A preprint is generally a full research draft paper that will include an account of methodologies, research methods, data and sources: making it broadly the same as a paper submitted for peer review. Some servers do perform low-level quality control inspections, but typically a paper will be posted online within a couple of days without review or comment.
This form of publication is inherently more flexible than traditional peer review because it enables a paper already in the public domain to be revised, updated or even withdrawn. The servers will tend to retain the original versions, which, to maintain the integrity of the scholarly record, can’t be removed.
The main differences between preprint and traditional peer review are its wide dissemination and the fact that a journal has not yet accepted it. Its purpose is to invite evaluation from any interested parties in advance of peer review.
Whether it can replace the need for peer review is a separate question.
What are the benefits of a preprint?
No one would suggest that peer review is perfect. There is always the danger of reviewer bias, disagreement amongst reviewers, predatory journals and scams. However, perhaps the most frequent complaint is the delay between the preparation of the paper and its review. It takes time to assign a reviewer – who is then under no obligation to work to a deadline – and eventual publication can be months after the initial submission. One of the arguments behind preprint is that it is a matter of urgency to get new findings and innovative ideas into the scientific community and the public arena.
The significant advantage of this method is that research can be made public as soon as the paper is complete, thus potentially shortening the process by many months. Only when there are good reasons to delay dissemination can delays be beneficial, for example, where there may be health, safety, security or legal issues. In many circumstances, speed is extremely helpful.
One need only consider the Covid-19 pandemic to find a perfect example of a situation where time is at a premium.
There are many other obvious advantages to the preprint process. It greatly increases the visibility of ideas rather than confining them to a specialist journal which, in any case, may only be accessible by subscription. Preprints are often helpful in securing funding for future research because they help establish the writer’s accomplishments and authority. They can also generate a much broader range of feedback at an early stage, relieving the pressure of relying simply upon the judgement of one academic, however accomplished they may be. The logical result of this freely given feedback is likely to be a readiness from other specialists in the field to engage collaboratively. Therefore, this wide form of exposure can deliver practical benefits to the refinement and development of the work that has gone into the paper.
Is it either or?
It would be incorrect to see the relationship between preprints and peer review as exclusive or in any way antagonistic. While preprints might be characterised as an alternative, in practice, the same piece of work is often submitted simultaneously to the peer review process and as a preprint online and elsewhere.
They do not work against each other: early exposure and measured evaluation actually provide a very effective communication system for scientific research.
Furthermore, the growth of the practice has persuaded journals in many fields to approve the submission and even citation of preprints. Some may maintain strict policies against this, but the tide seems to favour wider acceptance.
Will preprints replace peer review?
There are more reasons to expect a growing accommodation between the two practices than seeing it as a struggle where the winner takes all. The advocates of preprints do not doubt the value of peer review; they simply support the reasonable view that it is no longer the only legitimate route to follow. Perhaps the immediacy of online publishing has something to do with this attitude, but it’s hard to argue in favour of a slower system than is necessary.
Preprints and peer review have their own unique strengths. Peer review yields far more refined results, even considering its inherent weaknesses. At the same time, preprints are viewed as raw information – which is more speculative – offered up for discussion without necessarily reaching settled conclusions or exhaustive sources.
Preprints, of course, have the major advantage of speed, while peer review is a more painstaking process that may be more effective in identifying errors and omissions.
It could be argued that an infinite number of minds assessing a preprint will do (at least) as good a job as a single dedicated expert, but the debate will continue. A report  from the server mentioned earlier, bioRxiv, suggests that in a finalised peer-reviewed paper, there is only a modest increase in the quantity of reporting compared to preprints of the same paper. The noticeable increase was in the quality.
The considered view seems to be that peer review remains the central pillar of academic and scientific evaluation, while preprints can be enormously helpful in the development of work that is, in most cases, still destined for the approving stamp of peer review.
PA EDitorial’s management services are equipped to handle all forms of peer review, including the specific demands and complexities of the transparent model. We are fully skilled to manage the workflows and communication channels to ensure that, even in this most complex of processes, the interests of authors, reviewers, editors, and the wider academic community are equally and comprehensively served.