Should journals invite submissions from preprint authors?

The Molecular Ecologist is conducting a survey on whether journals such as Molecular Ecology should directly contact authors who’ve posted preprints, inviting them to submit those preprints to the journal. Cool survey. Go fill it out, then come back here to talk about it.

This is an interesting issue that I’ve been meaning to think more about. Many journals already encourage their editors to invite submissions of preprints, and some even have editors whose job it is to identify preprints to invite for submission. So here are some thoughts off the top of my head, offered in the spirit of thinking out loud and learning from commenters who’ve thought more about this topic than I have.

Inviting preprints for submission seems like it could reduce rejections by improving the fit of initial submissions to the journal. That seems like a win-win for all concerned.

I’m not too worried about predatory journals inviting submissions of preprints, since I think that except for a couple of borderline publishers it’s easy to identify predatory journals and ignore their invitations. I’m aware many will disagree on this.

In a funny way, a journal that starts inviting submissions from preprint authors is simultaneously taking more and less responsibility for the submissions and their evaluation. More responsibility, because a journal that doesn’t invite submissions can plausibly say that it’s only responsible for evaluating each submission fairly. For instance, women are only 1/3 of authors of Functional Ecology submissions, but Functional Ecology can plausibly say that there’s not much it can do about that. All Functional Ecology can do is make sure its publication decisions are gender-neutral (which they are). But once a journal starts inviting submissions, arguably it’s responsible for issuing invitations fairly. So what exactly does “fairly” mean in the context of inviting preprints for submission? As a starting point for discussion, here’s what Plos Genetics said when they first announced they would be inviting preprints for submission:

Preprint Editors will use a combination of their own judgment, a reading of the comments posted to the preprint server, and some automated tools to identify candidate manuscripts. They will then initiate a rapid consultation with editors on our board who have relevant specific expertise to determine if the manuscript has the qualities that would make it successful at our journal—it reports a significant advance in its field, would be of interest to the broad genetics community, and is technically excellent.

I like the idea of getting a second, independent opinion from another member of the editorial board before issuing an invitation to submit. Seems like that would increase both fairness and perceived fairness. I do wish Plos Genetics was more specific about what their “automated tools” are, though. This is where the “less responsibility” part comes in. If the decision whether to invite a preprint for submission is based in part on, say, how often the preprint has been downloaded (as it is at Genome Biology), then there’s a sense in which the journal is effectively taking less responsibility for its decisions, by outsourcing some of its decision-making to “the crowd”. I confess to mixed feelings about that. But maybe that just means I’m old fashioned? After all, editors’ own views of “where the field is going” already inform their decisions as to which papers merit publication. So maybe it’s not actually much of a change if editors use data on how often preprints have been downloaded to help decide which papers might merit publication?

What if a journal decided to actively seek out preprints from authors who are members of historically-underrepresented groups? Would that be a good thing? I can imagine arguments for and against.

I think journals should carefully phrase invitations to submit, lest the invitations be misinterpreted, much as invitations to apply for faculty positions sometimes get misinterpreted. I think the policy at Genome Biology is that solicited submissions are guaranteed to be sent out for review, but an invitation to submit doesn’t prejudge the outcome of the peer review process in any way (please correct me if I’m wrong!). That seems like a sensible policy to me.

Selective journals inviting submissions from preprint authors create a strong incentive to post preprints. A hypothetical future world in which many/most authors post preprints, and in which preprints are widely read and shared, seems like a world in which double-blind review might be difficult or impossible. Ok, that’s speculation about a hypothetical future, so fair enough if you think we should cross that bridge if and when we come to it. But for those of you who like to speculate wildly: which would you prefer, a world with widespread uptake of preprints, or a world with double-blind review? Because I’m not sure you can have both.

I wonder if the Molecular Ecology survey will produce a biased sample with respect to opinion on this issue. I suspect that people who already post preprints, and who like the idea of inviting submissions from preprint authors, will be especially likely to see and complete the survey. But that’s pure speculation on my part. And it’s not an argument against conducting the survey.

Finally, I’d be very curious to see data from Plos Genetics, Genome Biology, or other journals that have been inviting preprint authors to submit for a couple of years. What fraction of all submissions, and all accepted submissions, arise from invited submissions? Is the fraction increasing? How do the demographics of invited authors compare to those of non-invited authors? Etc.

What do you think? Looking forward to your comments, as always.

22 thoughts on “Should journals invite submissions from preprint authors?

  1. Does anyone have a sense of how commonly ecologists post preprints some time before submitting to a journal? And if you’re one who has, what motivated you to do so? Maybe I’m being cynical, but I just don’t see the incentives for doing that. Maybe that would change if enough journals were soliciting submissions based on preprints that it could be a useful step in finding a journal interested in a work.

    • I agree that some other life science fields seem to be taking up preprints more quickly than ecologists. It’s a collective action problem in some ways. If everyone in your field is posting and discussing preprints–if that’s where most of the intellectual “action” is–then you have a really strong incentive to post preprints too. But if not, not.

      At the moment in ecology, I suspect that most preprints aren’t likely to receive much substantive feedback. And I don’t think most preprints get widely read or shared compared to journal articles, or widely accessed by people who wouldn’t be able to access the published version. So yeah, I don’t really see strong incentives for posting preprints at the moment in ecology. Although the incentives likely vary from one ecologist to the next. For instance, if you have a lot of Twitter followers, or are in a subfield of ecology with a critical mass of ecologists who all post, read, share, and discuss preprints, you’d get a lot out of posting a preprint.

      Peer Community in Ecology, linked to in Marco’s comment above, is trying to generate a new incentive for posting preprints. Basically, it’s ecologists “endorsing” and writing up blurbs on preprints they liked. How much of an incentive is that? Well, it depends on how much you value the possibility of receiving their endorsement. I know PCIE don’t like to think of themselves as a journal, even an “overlay” journal. But they’re performing the same “filtering” function a selective journal does–identifying and aggregating stuff that’s interesting and important enough to be worth reading. So whether they call themselves a “journal” or not, they face the same challenge as a new journal does–develop a reputation with a sufficiently-large number of readers and authors as a good and useful filter.

      Personally, the reason I don’t pay attention to preprints in ecology is that I don’t feel like ecology moves all *that* fast. I don’t feel like my own research is falling behind the curve if I wait until the latest results on the topics I work on are peer-reviewed and published in the journals. And I don’t feel like I’m falling out of touch with the broader field if I only pay attention to what’s published in the journals, rather than what will be published in the journals in a year or two.

      Of course, there’s also the cost side of the equation. If posting a preprint requires very little time and effort on your part, then hey, why not post it? Personally, this strikes me as one of the better arguments for posting preprints at the moment.

      But honestly, there’s also a huge “different strokes for different folks” element to all this, at least at the moment. Posting a preprint doesn’t *harm* anyone or anything else. So if you want to post a preprint, go ahead! And if you don’t want to, go ahead! Nobody’s Doing It Wrong, whether they post preprints or don’t post preprints. Really, by far the strongest reason to post a preprint in ecology right now is “I feel like it”. That is a completely inarguable reason for posting a preprint in ecology right now! And by far the strongest reason *not* to post a preprint in ecology right now is “I don’t feel like it.” That is a completely inarguable reason not to post a preprint in ecology right now. In contrast, if you said “I don’t feel like publishing in journals”, that would be a very bad reason for not publishing in journals! At least if you also want to obtain or keep a job in which you’re expected to conduct and share scientific research. And if you said “I only publish in journals because I feel like it”, that would be a very odd reason for publishing in journals, given that you’re expected to publish in journals if you want to obtain or keep a job in which you’re expected to conduct and share scientific research. So at some level, discussing incentives to post preprints is a little pointless at the moment. The fact that the incentives are debatable is also the reason why they’re not really worth debating. People can and should just do whatever they want to do at the moment. Nobody needs to worry about what anybody else is doing, or whether they’re acting in accordance with the (very small and debatable) incentives. If the incentives ever change to the point that it’s *obvious* that everyone should post preprints (or that nobody should post preprints), well, at that point it’ll be…obvious. Discussion won’t be necessary and most everyone will just act according to the obvious, strong incentives.

      All this might change in future, of course. If I had to guess, I’d say posting preprints will eventually become standard practice in ecology. But I have no idea how long that’ll take.

    • I have had a manuscript solicited by a journal based on a preprint, and think I can provide some useful context to your question. I indeed posted the preprint just before submitting the manuscript to its first journal – I didn’t post it early and then wait around to see whether I got any feedback. This is, I think, how most ecologists operate with respect to preprint servers.

      But! That first journal declined to review the paper. While the paper was on the editor’s desk, a second journal saw the preprint and sent me an email about it. So by the time the first journal rejected it, the decision about where to send it next was really easy. The manuscript went through peer review that was quite thorough and substantive at the second journal, and was ultimately published there. We were quite happy with the process, and it was a journal that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought to submit to next.

      I agree that most ecologists don’t think to post preprints way before they submit to journals. But keeping in mind the long life and twisting path some manuscripts take to eventually being published, I don’t think that rules out having these preprints solicited by journals.

  2. I think that journals soliciting submissions via preprints is fine per se, but the devil is in the details. My main concern is bias in the system. I think most of us would concede that certain labs and institutions have–paper quality being equal–inherent advantages in which journals their papers end up. So I would worry about a system where papers with more “clicks” have a better chance of receiving a solicitation, when the higher views may correlate better with visibility.

  3. Interesting. I tend to post pre-prints at the same time as submitting to my first choice journal. I am curious as to how many people wait for feedback. I rarely get feedback, so I don’t wait. If I did get feedback I would incorporate it with the first round of peer review. Solicitations by journals might provide me with an incentive to wait though if this became widely adopted.

    • One of the questions on the Molecular Ecologist survey is how long you’d be prepared to wait for an invitation to submit before you just went ahead and submitted to a journal of your own choice.

  4. I know that one reason some people (far from all) post preprints is because they see preprints, along with post-publication “review”, as a replacement for the current system of journals and pre-publication review. From that perspective, I can imagine that peer-reviewed journals inviting submissions of preprints might seem like an attempt to co-opt preprint-based disruption of the scholarly publishing ecosystem. But I’m speculating on the views of others here, and so maybe I’m totally off base. I would be curious to hear comments from folks with various motivations for posting preprints, and various attitudes towards peer-reviewed journals.

  5. I don’t have enough time to read the published literature. I certainly cannot justify filtering through unreviewed papers which takes more time and effort than going through a peer-reviewed journal. That is unlikely to change. So, I am certainly not going to post a preprint. I also think it unlikely that preprints will replace the current system; and I hope I am right. Just doesn’t seem a good fit for E&E, though it likely is for other fields.

    I know that in some time sensitive cases (climate stuff, or maybe endangered species research) it might seem to make sense to post a preprint, but just sending a polished ms to the folks who I feel need to see it seems a better way to go. And I might post an abstract on Research Gate for those few people who are interested in what I do.

    • “just sending a polished ms to the folks who I feel need to see it seems a better way to go. ”

      Well, that depends on you either being good friends with those people, or an exceptionally good judge of what they themselves would want to read. Never in my career have I ever received a published paper or unpublished ms via email from a stranger that I was glad to receive. Strangers just aren’t very good at guessing what I’ll want to read, or they’re trying to promote their own work, or both. But in fairness, I’ve only received a few papers or mss via email from strangers, so the sample size here is small.

      • Ha! No, I don’t send papers to folks I don’t know. My purpose is really to let people who are doing similar work (and managers) know more about what I am working on currently and, sometimes, I have time sensitive results (mostly applied research). One group that I am a member of (freshwater fishes) publishes ‘state reports’ summarizing current research efforts and results by most of the fish researchers in that state which is helpful to get a sense of what is going on in my area of work. My outreach is in the same spirit and I feel that the effort I spend on this is time well spent. But putting a paper on a preprint server seems pointless to me because, and I could be wrong, relatively few (i.e., zero, at least in my case) people are going to find it and cite it in the 9 months or so it takes to get published.

        Just me, but with the exception of a relative few really high impact, burning hot papers, preprints do not add much, if any, net value to our collective research output. Too many potential negative issues as outlined in some of the comments. But I am glad that DE provides a forum for discussion.

    • It would be interesting to poll people in a field that’s already widely adopted preprints, or in a field that’s clearly in the process of adopting them, and compare their opinions on preprints to those of ecologists.

      • Part of my lab does quantitative/evolutionary genetics, and preprints are pretty widespread. NIH allows citations of preprints, and inclusion in the Biosketch, which has accelerated their use. For junior scientists, preprints are a good way to show that manuscripts are further along than just “in preparation.” This holds some weight in both grant review and for job applications. Google Scholar alerts will tip me off to important preprints in my field, and I have cited them in proposals or papers. It may be a matter of the field moving rapidly, but I find quite a bit of value in preprints (that often come out a year before the final published version).

      • Do you ever run into issues because the ms has changed substantially from the preprint version to the published version?

        I know in economics people worry about this. In that field, preprints sometimes go through rounds of revisions *as preprints*; authors will get feedback and then revise the preprint in light of it. Which leads to problems because the first version of the preprint is often the one that gets the most notice. Many people who see it and share it won’t later see or share revised versions, even if the revisions alter the conclusions.

      • True, you are putting yourself out there when you cite a preprint. Of course peer-reviewed manuscripts can be retracted, though that’s more rare. When I’m citing a preprint, I’m citing a result or conclusion that withstood my scrutiny and should thus survive peer review. Google Scholar will sync the citations from a preprint to the final published version, which is what shows up if you have a Scholar profile.

  6. Pingback: Pre-print in science | Wildlife Genetics

  7. Another gender-related potential issue. Given the research showing women are less likely to self-nominate, negotiate, and take other self-promotion actions, I wonder whether there is a gender disparity in posting preprints as well. Anyone know?

    • Good question. I too would be interested to the data on that.

      I wonder if you would need to control for gender balance of fields and subfields? For instance, preprints have long been the main way economists share ideas. Economics is a quite male-skewed field, so I’m sure economics preprint authors skew male. But I doubt they skew any more or less male than economics as a whole, because everybody in economics posts preprints.

  8. Pingback: Survey results: Journal solicitations from preprint servers |

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