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Preprints are the new way to share science

February 12, 2019
By Milan Valyear

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash.

In the last three decades the number of experiments included in academic biology publications from top tier journals has increased two to fourfold. In many cases the number of figures that appear as supplemental information in recent publications is greater than the total number of figures in a publication from 1984.1

The work required to produce a set of experiments for publication in a reputable biology journal has increased and this has consequences for scientists, students and knowledge dissemination in general. As the landscape for publishing in academic journals continues to change so too do the outlets for information sharing in academia.

The process of academic publishing in science typically progresses from experimentation, to writing, to manuscript submission and finally to peer review. Upon receiving a submission, a journal editor will select a panel of qualified reviewers to evaluate the quality of the work and raise potential concerns that the researcher should address before publication.

Peer review is a critical process in academic publishing. In most journals the reviewers remain anonymous, which allows reviews to be thorough and unreserved. In-depth reviews of manuscripts that include more experiments take longer to produce and may require more experiments before publication.

A lengthening in the review process for academic publishing may decrease the number of papers a student can publish before graduating and slows the dissemination of new research throughout the scientific community.

Preprints are publicly available manuscripts that academic journals have not yet accepted for publication. arXiv — pronounced “archive” — is a preprint server for physics and math papers that has been online since 1991. As of February 10, 2019, arXiv provides access to 1,497,979 preprint articles to the public and scientists alike.

Similar preprint servers have emerged for other scientific disciplines: EarthArXiv for the earth sciences, ChemRxiv for chemistry and BioRxiv for the biological sciences. The emergence of preprint services for many scientific sub-disciplines is a response to the growing popularity of preprints.

BioRxiv, for example, has steadily increased the number of preprints uploaded per month since its inception in 2013.In addition to the increases in preprints uploaded, the number of downloads per preprint has also increased. The median number of downloads per single preprint is 279.3

In my discipline of neuroscience, preprints have become particularly popular. On BioRxiv there are more neuroscience preprints uploaded and downloaded every month than any other discipline.Preprints allow scientists to communicate their science rapidly.

I uploaded my first preprintin November of 2018 as soon as my project was written up in manuscript format. This allowed us to simultaneously communicate our findings to and solicit feedback from the neuroscience community before submitting our manuscript to a journal. After uploading the preprint, I was also able to add it to my CV with a citeable DOI.

Also, preprints are available for free. Even when a manuscript becomes published in an academic journal, the preprint remains accessible to the public. Preprints allow for scientists to communicate their findings rapidly, students to bolster their CV in a tangible way and for science to be freely available to the public.

These benefits of preprints have prompted motions like that of Plan U, which suggests research funders require grantees to upload their manuscripts as preprints in a push for universal access to scientific and medical research.

I can easily sing the advantages of preprint servers, but that does not mean that preprints are without their pitfalls. Preprints allow rapid dissemination of information by bypassing the peer review process. Holding preprints to a lower standard than peer-reviewed publications may mean that preprints are of lesser quality than articles that appear in academic journals behind paywalls.

It seems inaccurate that preprints are of lesser quality than published journal articles because most preprints ultimately end up in peer-reviewed academic journals. For instance, academic journals published 67 per cent of the papers uploaded to bioRxiv from 2013-16. Further, 90 per cent of bioRxiv preprints are published within one year of being uploaded; the median time between preprint submission and publication is 166 days.3

That peer-reviewed journals publish most preprints suggests that there is not an appreciable difference in the quality of the science that researchers are uploading and publishing. Of course, preprints may lack the helpful suggestions that reviewers make and that editors require before publication.

The time between preprint upload and publication reveals that preprints offer an approximate six-month increase in the speed with which researchers can communicate their findings. Importantly, however, preprints remain available to scientists that do not have access to certain journal subscriptions through their library services and to the public.

The volume of experiment-based work that goes into the average academic publication in biology has grown in recent decades. This increase in the amount of experimental work per publication slows the dissemination of scientific findings through traditional academic channels. A solution to this slowing is preprint services. Preprints allow scientists to communicate their findings rapidly, students to add citeable projects to their CVs, and the public to access scientific and medical research in perpetuity.

1. Vale, R. D. Accelerating scientific publication in biology. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 112, 13439–13446 (2015).
2. Kaiser, J. The preprint dilemma. Science (80-. ). 357, 1344–1349 (2017).
3. Abdill, R. J., Blekhman, R., Biology, C. & Blekhman, R. Tracking the popularity and outcomes of all bioRxiv preprints. bioRxiv (2019).
4. Valyear, M. D. et al. Divergent mesolimbic dopamine circuits support alcohol-seeking triggered by discrete cues and contexts. bioRxiv (2018). doi:

About the author

Milan Valyear has a Master’s degree in psychology from Wilfrid Laurier University and is currently a doctoral candidate at the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia. He studies addiction in the lab of Dr. Nadia Chaudhri and is particularly interested in the neural systems that control how cues in the environment trigger relapse. Using cutting-edge neuroscience tools, he is able to silence specific neural pathways when rats are presented with alcohol cues and observe how they respond.

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