Will preprints have a lasting effect on publishing beyond COVID-19?

By Samantha Black, PhD, The Science Advisory Board editor in chief

April 7, 2021 -- During the COVID-19 pandemic, 25% of all COVID-19-related scientific manuscripts were shared on preprint servers, a steep increase from previous usage and relative to traditional peer-review journals. An international team of researchers explored the critical role of preprint servers in disseminating epidemic-related information in an article published in PLOS Biology on April 2.

Scholarly research has traditionally been communicated via published journal articles, which undergo a traditional peer-review process. This lengthy process takes on average six months from submission to acceptance.

Alternatively, preprints are publicly accessible scholarly manuscripts that have not yet been certified by peer review. Preprints offer the benefit of allowing free access to research findings, a different model from traditional journals that are often behind subscription paywalls.

Preprint servers were first established in 2013, when two new preprint initiatives for the biological sciences were launched -- PeerJ Preprints, from the publisher PeerJ, and bioRxiv, from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). More recently, CSHL, in collaboration with Yale and BMJ, launched medRxiv, a preprint server for the medical sciences.

Preprint platforms serving the life sciences have gained popularity over the years, and preprints submissions continue to grow year over year. Ultimately, around two-thirds of preprints are eventually published in peer-reviewed journals.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first time that preprints have been widely used outside of specific communities to communicate during an epidemic, noted the corresponding authors Jonathon Coates, PhD, from Queen Mary University of London; Nicholas Fraser, PhD, from the Leibniz Information Centre for Economics; and Liam Brierley, PhD, from the University of Liverpool.

COVID-19 and preprints

Over 125,000 scientific articles related to COVID-19 were released within 10 months of the first confirmed case. Of these articles, more than 30,000 were hosted by preprint servers, according to the team's analysis.

Cartoon of the planet with a mask on.
Image courtesy of cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay.

In the current study, the researchers decided to focus on two popular servers in the life sciences: bioRxiv and medRxiv. They examined the attributes of COVID-19 preprints, access and usage rates, as well as characteristics of the propagation on online platforms for preprints between January 1 and October 31, 2020.

Preprint servers hosted almost 25% of COVID-19-related science during the study period. This is a significant uptick in comparison to previous recent outbreaks such as Zika or Ebola. Moreover, in response to the pandemic, a number of journal publishers began to alter their open-access policies in relation to COVID-19 manuscripts.

"The pandemic has shone a light on the benefits of preprints over more traditional publishing and it was clear early in the pandemic that something was happening with preprint usage," said lead author Jonathon Coates, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London, in a statement.

Overall, COVID-19 preprints are on average 32% shorter in length than non-COVID-19 preprints. Also, COVID-19 preprints contained fewer references than non-COVID-19 preprints. The data suggest that the novelty of the COVID-19 research field -- and the rapid speed at which preprints are being posted -- prompted researchers to post preprints in a less mature state or based on a smaller literature base compared to non-COVID preprints.

The teams found that preprints describing COVID-19 research are downloaded and accessed at unprecedented levels (up to 10-fold more often than research unrelated to the pandemic) and are being heavily used by reporters and policy makers for the first time. Many of the highest cited preprints focused on the viral cell receptor, angiotensin converting-enzyme 2 (ACE2), or the epidemiology of COVID-19.

As well, 28.7% of COVID-19 preprints were featured in at least a single news article, compared to 1.0% of non-COVID-19 preprints. And COVID-19 preprints received much greater Twitter coverage (seven times that of non-COVID-19 preprints). The fact that news outlets are even reporting COVID-19 preprints marks a cultural shift in journalism, narrowing the gap between scientific discovery and dissemination, according to the authors.

The authors explained that preprints have been widely adopted for the dissemination and communication of COVID-19 research, and in turn, the pandemic has greatly affected the preprint and science publishing landscape. This may have come out of a need to rapidly communicate findings prior to a lengthy review peer process.

"What we hope is that the cultural shifts reported in this paper will remain after the pandemic and the biomedical community will continue to turn to preprint servers for disseminating new studies," Coates said.

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