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Review of "A scoping review on the use and acceptability of preprints"

Published onMay 14, 2023
Review of "A scoping review on the use and acceptability of preprints"
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A scoping review on the use and acceptability of preprints
Description

Background: Preprints are open and accessible scientific manuscript or report that has not been submitted to a peer reviewed journal. The value and importance of preprints has grown since its contribution during the public health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic. Funders and publishers are establishing their position on the use of preprints, in grant applications and publishing models. However, the evidence supporting the use and acceptability of preprints varies across funders, publishers, and researchers. The purpose of this scoping review was to explore the current evidence on the use and acceptability of preprints by publishers, funders, and the research community throughout the research lifecycle. Methods: A scoping review was undertaken with no study or language limits. The search strategy was limited to the last five years (2017-2022) to capture changes influenced by COVID-19 (e.g., accelerated use and role of preprints in research). The review included international literature, including grey literature, and two databases were searched: Scopus and Web of Science (24 August 2022). Results: 379 titles and abstracts and 193 full text articles were assessed for eligibility. Ninety-eight articles met eligibility criteria and were included for full extraction. For barriers and challenges, 26 statements were grouped under four main themes (e.g., volume/growth of publications, quality assurance/trustworthiness, risks associated to credibility, and validation). For benefits and value, 34 statements were grouped under six themes (e.g., openness/transparency, increased visibility/credibility, open review process, open research, democratic process/systems, increased productivity/opportunities). Conclusions: Preprints provide opportunities for rapid dissemination but there is a need for clear policies and guidance from journals, publishers, and funders. Cautionary measures are needed to maintain the quality and value of preprints, paying particular attention to how findings are translated to the public. More research is needed to address some of the uncertainties addressed in this review.

As a signatory of Publish Your Reviews, I have committed to publish my peer reviews alongside the preprint version of an article. For more information, see http://publishyourreviews.org.

This paper offers a very useful overview of the literature on preprinting in scientific disciplines focused on health and social care. The review is highly informative. Below I offers some recommendations for improvements.

 

As discussed in the paragraph on inclusion criteria, the review is restricted to “research disciplines that focused on health and social care”. This restriction is not mentioned in the title and abstract of the paper. Neither is it mentioned in the introduction and discussion sections. My recommendation is to mention this restriction in a much more prominent way. The restriction to the health sciences is important because many of the concerns about preprinting reported in the review are probably less relevant in disciplines outside the health sciences.

 

“A preprint is a scientific manuscript or report that has not been submitted to a peer reviewed journal”: I don’t think this is an accurate way to define a preprint. Typically an article is first posted as a preprint on a preprint server and then submitted to a journal. According to the definition of a preprint given by the authors, an article posted on a preprint server can no longer be called a preprint when it is submitted to a journal. This is confusing. My suggestion is to define a preprint as a scientific manuscript or report that is shared publicly before it is submitted to a journal.

 

“The search strategy aimed to locate both published and unpublished studies”: I find this confusing. An unpublished study is not public and therefore cannot be located using a search strategy that considers only publicly available information. I think the authors mean ‘peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed studies’ instead of ‘published and unpublished studies’.

 

“Two databases were searched: Scopus and Web of Science on 24 August 2022”: The use of Web of Science and Scopus means that preprints were excluded from the search strategy. Web of Science nowadays indexes preprints in the Preprint Citation Index, but this index was not yet available in August 2022. Scopus indexes preprints, but only in a highly restricted way. (Preprints are visible only in author profiles in Scopus, not in the general search feature.) I believe the exclusion of preprints needs to be mentioned and motivated. The authors could have used other databases, such as Dimensions, that are more comprehensive and that also index preprints. The exclusion of preprints might lead to a bias, since some proponents of preprinting may have published their work only as a preprint, not as an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

 

“There are also several funding organisations that allow the inclusion of preprints as part of a grant application, which are starting to be disseminated in published literature. However, the evidence was sparse”: The authors claim that evidence on support for preprinting by research funders is ‘sparse’. However, in 2022, a substantial number of funders expressed support for reviewed preprints. See https://www.coalition-s.org/statement-on-peer-reviewed-publications/ (note that this statement uses the term ‘publication’ instead of ‘preprint’) and https://elifesciences.org/inside-elife/ebadb0f1/elife-s-new-model-funders-support-use-of-reviewed-preprints-in-research-assessment. Is there a specific reason why this evidence from the gray literature was not included in the review?

 

“the absence of peer review has led to the withdrawal of several preprints”: I don’t understand this. Many peer-reviewed articles are also withdrawn or retracted. I don’t think it is correct to say that the absence of peer review leads to the withdrawal of a preprint. If the same article were peer reviewed by a journal, its flaws might be overlooked in the peer review process and it might be accepted for publication in the journal. The article might then subsequently be withdrawn. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the absence of peer review is the cause of a withdrawal.

 

“preprints can become part of the publication process”: I don’t understand this. In my understanding, preprinting is by definition part of the publication process. When a researcher posts an article on a preprint server, the article is made public and is therefore published.

 

“with caveats and cautionary measures to maintain quality, credibility, transparency and openness”: It is hard to disagree with this, but doesn’t the same also apply to articles in peer-reviewed journals? As the large numbers of retractions of articles in peer-reviewed journals demonstrate, many low-quality articles are published in these journals. Caveats and cautionary measures to maintain quality and credibility are needed not only for preprints, but also (and perhaps even more) for peer-reviewed journals.

 

“there was a consensus of a lack of original research to clearly articulate how and in what circumstances preprints adds value and provides tangible benefits to researchers, publishers, and funding organisations”: I don’t understand this. It seems to me that a lot of work has already been done on this, as shown in Table 3.

 

“Adopting the use of preprints in grant applications requires clear and ethical guidance to prevent retraction”: I can see the benefits of clear and ethical guidance, but I don’t see how this relates to retraction. Please elaborate.

 

“Adopt open access standards to meet publishing and funding organisations requirements to prevent predatory journals, who often get researchers to sign over their copyright to the research, and do not disclose author fees”: This is about predatory journals. I don’t see how this relates to preprinting.

 

“The published version (peer reviewed publications) are already seen as part of the formality, and preprints could be an important addition to that scholarly communication.”: In my understanding, a preprint is itself a published version. See my earlier comment on this terminological issue.

 

Finally, while this paper correctly points out the need to be cautious with preprints, especially in the health sciences, I think the discussion is not sufficiently balanced, since the paper doesn’t mention that peer-reviewed journal articles are facing similar challenges. Articles in peer-reviewed journals also need to be handled cautiously, since we know that many of them are unreliable (as shown for instance by the retraction of high-profile COVID-19 articles and by the large numbers of retractions of fraudulent articles in peer-reviewed journals). To make the paper more balanced, my recommendation is to make readers more aware (in the introduction and the discussion section) of the challenges faced by peer-reviewed journal articles.

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