Faster dissemination of research findings – key facts about preprints

The role of preprints

Preprints – versions of scientific publications that precede peer review – are now recognised as a key part of scientific communication in the life sciences.

Although many journals now accept preprints being made available before or in parallel to publication with the journal, authors should enquire in advance about the conditions under which this is possible. Information on journals’ preprint policies and other details can be found on the TRANSPOSE platform (TRANsparency in Scholarly Publishing for Open Scholarship Evolution) or on Sherpa Romeo.

Some journals are now actually taking the route of explicitly requiring articles to be posted on a preprint server prior to peer review, such as eLife with its “publish, then review” model. Many of the journals published by the OA publisher Copernicus Publications follow similar models, as does the F1000Research platform. Here, too, it is important to find out in advance what the procedures are and what conditions apply. In addition, some publishers offer a preprint option for some of their journals at the time of manuscript submission and as an additional service. Examples include the free preprint service “In Review” from Springer Nature and Wiley’s “Under Review” service.

When should preprints be published?

Choosing the right moment to publish a manuscript as a preprint depends on the author’s goals and will typically vary from one discipline to another. Moreover, some journals have their own policy on whether a preprint can be posted at the same time as submitting a paper or whether a certain amount of time needs to have elapsed. Journals can provide this information on request.

It is worth noting that preprints are viewed as a means of disseminating scientific results at an early stage and are seen as making a contribution to scientific discourse. Preprint manuscripts should therefore be fit for publication and prepared with the same care as other publications based on the principles of good research practice. For journals with a double-blind peer-review policy, it is important to remember that posting the manuscript to a preprint server prior to submitting it to the journal may compromise the authors’ anonymity.

Preprint servers

While institutional or subject repositories are often used to self-archive postprints (green open access), preprint servers are now becoming an increasingly popular option for the publication of preprints. These often focus on a specific discipline. Examples of preprint servers in the life sciences include bioRxiv and medRxiv. Preprint servers are also offered by publishers and research funding institutions. The “List of preprint servers” contains an overview of the platforms that are currently available.

We recommend that you carefully check the terms and conditions of the preprint server before submission, especially concerning which article types are accepted and any guidelines that may be available on manuscript preparation and licensing options.
It should be noted that preprints are now considered to be a means of disseminating scientific results at an early stage and are viewed as making a contribution to scientific discourse. It is therefore important to prepare preprint manuscripts with the same care as other publications in accordance with the guidelines of good research practice.

It is now possible to assign a persistent identifier (DOI) to preprints. To increase transparency and improve the findability of the version of record published by the publisher, the preprint and the publisher's version of record should be linked to each other. The question of whether responsibility for creating this link lies with the preprint server, the publishing journal or the author(s) should be clarified by the publisher at the latest upon publication of the version of record.
Some preprint servers take an alternative route of replacing the preprint version with the publisher’s version of record. Once again, it is important to find out in advance who will initiate this process and check the details of the corresponding workflow.

Some preprint servers allow authors to correct, update or add material to their preprints, either by replacing the version on the server or generating a new version. We recommend checking what options are available before posting manuscripts to a preprint server. Where applicable, the reasons for any changes should be explained in a comment text box or at the start of the file itself.
As a general rule, publications cannot be retracted or deleted unless their content poses some kind of risk. Even if a publication is deleted, most preprint servers will still keep a record of its metadata.

Citing preprints

Preprints have the formal status of green and grey open-access literature, in other words publications that are not available through the book trade. Authors should therefore check with journals prior to manuscript submission to find out whether preprints may be cited in the bibliography. The same applies to those applying for research funding and job applicants: before submitting an application, it is important to clarify the extent to which preprints may be listed as publications. In cases where preprints are permitted to be cited or listed in the bibliography, these should always be properly marked as “preprints” or “non-peer-reviewed publications”.

Should multiple versions of a publication be available, the final published version should ideally be cited (i.e. the publisher’s version of record). This is important, since citation databases generally only index citations of the version of record. Prior to submitting a manuscript or postprint to a publisher, we therefore recommend checking whether any cited preprints have since been published in a journal. This obviously only applies if the passage from the preprint originally cited in the manuscript also appears in the corresponding publication’s version of record.

Authors should also update their own list of publications when a version of record appears, replacing the bibliographic information of the preprint with that of the version of record in order to avoid duplicates.

See also

Academic referencing and citations: key points to consider

Preprint mandates of research funders

Preprints can lead to the rapid dissemination of research results, something that was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to increasing calls to mandate immediate preprint publication for funded research, especially during disease outbreaks. Plan U is one of the initiatives advocating for a preprint mandate. The Wellcome Trust requires preprint publication in the event of disease outbreaks. When undertaking funded research, it is therefore important to ascertain the extent to which the funding institution has introduced such mandates.

Concerns about preprints: lack of quality assurance and risk of plagiarism

The posting of preprints continues to attract criticism from some quarters. This is primarily directed at the lack of quality assurance, since preprints have not undergone a peer-review process. The concern is that the use of potentially flawed results could cause harm. To address this concern, preprint platforms carry out a basic check of the manuscripts they receive before posting them on the server. This initial perusal is designed to filter out unscientific submissions and manuscripts that contain obvious methodological errors. In addition, preprints are clearly marked as non-peer-reviewed publications.
Some preprint servers also require authors to provide a note of recommendation from a different researcher or an institutional email address when they make their first preprint submission. This is to ensure that submissions are confined to academic contributions from researchers working in the field.

Another common concern is that posting preprints gives others the opportunity to claim the research ideas and results contained in the preprint as their own. It is important to remember that posting a manuscript on a preprint server gives authors an opportunity to publicly document their own research ideas and findings at an early stage in order to benefit from the resulting discussion and feedback. Copying or appropriating results from a preprint without proper citation is a form of plagiarism and thus of research misconduct.

See also

What are the differences between preprint and postprint versions?
What are the key issues to consider when self-archiving publications in open access repositories (including document servers and online archives) or on websites?
Policies on self-archiving: where can I find information on journals issued by different publishers?
Document servers, online archives and other repositories: which is the most suitable repository for your publication?


Important note: The information and links provided here do not represent any form of binding legal advice. They are solely intended to provide an initial basis to help get you on the right track. ZB MED – Information Centre for Life Sciences has carefully checked the information included in the list of FAQs. However, we are unable to accept any liability whatsoever for any errors it may contain. Unless indicated otherwise, any statements concerning individual statutory norms or regulations refer to German law (FAQ updated 11/2022).