Godwyns Onwuchekwa outlines a variety of new approaches to reviewing and drawing attention to preprints across different research areas.
Preprints—research outputs that are posted publicly before being peer reviewed—are growing in popularity across many disciplines. So, too, are initiatives to review, curate, and share preprints within the scientific community. Here, we provide some context behind the rise of preprints, and outline a variety of new approaches to reviewing and drawing attention to preprints across different research areas. Our aim is to encourage further discussion around the review and curation of preprints, as well as invite others to get involved.
Towards the end of the 20th century, there was a growing appetite among researchers to revive the preprint movement and make it part of the mainstream of research publishing. With the invention of the internet, especially the modern World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1980s, this bold movement led to increasing action on what began back in the 1960s.
The growing popularity of preprints can be seen as a threat to traditional journal publishing. While the internet successfully disrupted most areas of life and business, scientific publishing struggled to break through, and continued to rely on an antiquated system of hardcopy printing, slow and tedious peer-review processes, and a ubiquitous cost system. All of these lacked transparency, and created two tiers of players in a sector where goodwill contribution could be considered the mainstay. The resulting effect of this archaic system was complexity in sharing new findings and translating them into use by other scientists and members of the public. This left more to be desired, and the appetite for change remains to this day.
To help shake up the system, various initiatives have come and gone in the past 20 years, with many focusing on increasing the adoption of preprints to help speed up research communication. Alongside this approach, the number of journals that operate on open access principles has increased over recent years, helping to make science as widely accessible and shareable as possible. So, the tide has gradually turned and the pace has increased by the day.
While there remains a perception that journal articles are superior to preprints due to their fully peer-reviewed status, there are now some cases where preprints are becoming the root of journal articles. As an example, in July 2021, eLife shifted to only peer reviewing research articles posted as preprints and curates those accepted for publication in the journal. The rapid growth in the preprint literature over recent years, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the movement towards the public review of preprints, suggests that they are inevitably bound to influence the evolution of journal publishing. There are now a number of initiatives and innovations that capitalise on the benefits of preprints for scientists and aim to make them useful for everyone. One of these benefits, namely the open nature of preprints, is likely the core catalyst for the next stage in science publishing—the ‘liberated stage’—where we can push the boundaries of research communication from a process optimised for the print era to a process optimised for the digital era.
Preprints were originally adopted to allow for the faster dissemination of new findings. To help readers to now navigate the growing number of preprints available, additional activities such as public review and curation are being explored. These include rapid reviews, screening using artificial intelligence (AI) software, highlights, and even simple but expert annotations.
Today, initiatives such as PREreview, a platform for the crowdsourcing of preprint reviews, are changing the game. With its Rapid PREreviews (as in this example), the organisation helps to obtain quick opinions on a preprint through a structured review made up of 12 questions with a ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘N/A’, or ‘Unsure’ response designed to capture the essence of a preprint. These Rapid PREreviews, authored by individual, expert PREreviewers, are displayed in such a way that the reader can quickly identify questions with numerous positive, negative, N/A, or unsure responses. In addition to providing quick opinions on a preprint for the reader’s benefit, this innovation allows authors to see at a glance if they could improve their preprint.
Another group of researchers developed an even more nuanced way of testing for some common problems in preprints. Using AI, the group combined their tools into a single pipeline, called ScreenIT. This tool has proved useful especially for screening COVID-19–related preprints as submissions peaked during the pandemic. ScreenIT and similar innovations that use AI can help flag up problems in preprints rapidly, helping readers to quickly assess the findings themselves.
Another new initiative is the ‘endorsed preprints’ approach deployed by Biophysics Colab—a collaboration of biophysicists who are working in partnership with eLife to improve the way in which original research is evaluated. Their aim is to drive forward the principles of open science by providing an equitable, inclusive, and transparent environment for peer review. With their new system, they provide a rigorous feedback process, after which they will endorse a preprint if the authors improve the work and address their comments in a satisfactory way.
Alongside these initiatives is Sciety—a new application that brings open evaluation and curation together in one place, helping readers navigate the growing preprint landscape. As an agnostic application, Sciety provides a central hub for aggregating the activities carried out by the various groups and their initiatives mentioned above, as well as any new initiatives that come on board. Sciety brings these diverse activities together, allowing for multiple evaluations, reviews, and assessments from different communities to be posted on a single preprint, further enriching the content. By bringing these activities together, Sciety aims to help researchers, policymakers, and the public sift through the growing number of preprints, cutting down the time it takes for them to identify high-quality and cutting-edge new findings that are relevant to them. They can then curate lists of preprints of interest and add personal notes and comments to them—as well as share their lists with others, resulting in further community engagement with the preprints.
We at Sciety strongly believe that the review and curation of preprints, and related activities including those described above, will redefine what effective research dissemination and discovery look like in future. Our goal for the application is to provide a base for experimenting with and developing these and other innovations further, without the constraints presented by the traditional publishing process. In the next few years, we hope to see activities around preprints multiply, as well as more published journal articles and their citations linking back to the original preprints, helping to create a fuller picture of a piece of research. In this way, the adoption and use of preprints will hopefully continue to grow for the benefit of authors, readers, the broader research community, and many others.
We invite readers to find out more about Sciety by visiting https://sciety.org, and to view the communities that are already evaluating and curating preprints on the application at https://sciety.org/groups. If you wish to find out more about Sciety, or become part of the community by joining as a group, please contact us at [email protected].
In his role as the Community and Outreach Manager for Sciety, GO is a member of the Executive Staff of eLife.