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.