What is a preprint?
A preprint is a complete version of a scholarly manuscript that has been openly shared but not yet undergone peer review and/or been published in a traditional academic journal.
Preprints are commonly shared in public, usually discipline-specific repositories called preprint servers. Once posted, your preprint becomes a permanent, citable part of the scientific record. The preprint server may offer a public comment function that facilitates (informal) open peer review. Open Access repositories may also host preprint versions of articles alongside accepted and published versions of articles. There is no cost to the author to publish a preprint.
Preprints are established practice in some disciplines, for example in physics, maths and astronomy; and emerging as common practice in other areas including in the biomedical and social sciences fields.
The processes and timing differ between posting on preprint servers and journal publication. Preprints may be available for community review, whereas in journal publication the peer review process will be lengthier, and the paper is traditionally not available to the community for review.
Watch an introduction to preprints by Dr Arnoud van Vliet to find out more about preprints.
Glossary of similar terms
The definitions of these terms vary between disciplines. The following provides broad definitions:
Working paper: A completed draft. The manuscript is not yet in its final state, and will be superseded by a further version. The manuscript has not undergone peer review.
Preprint: The definition can overlap with working papers, or the manuscript may be finished and ready to be peer reviewed. Preprints may have several iterations based on formal and informal peer review.
Postprint (Also known as author’s accepted manuscript): The accepted but unformatted (i.e., not typeset or formatted by the journal) version of a paper. The paper has been peer reviewed and accepted by a journal. Postprints are often used as a way of distributing a paper that would otherwise be behind a paywall at the journal.
Why share preprints?
Preprints follow the principle of ‘as early as possible’. Research findings can be disseminated quickly, by-passing delays caused by lengthy editorial processes.
Of course, peer review is still important: it is key to flag preprints as non-peer-reviewed or, better still, enable open peer review of preprints. In this way, early dissemination benefits the pace of research and supports fast solutions in the face of global problems – pandemics being one example.
Establishing priority benefits researchers as their research papers are visible as early as possible, and primacy of results is established.
Preprints can be assigned DOIs, added to CVs, used in grant and job applications, and cited in advance of publication.
Many preprints may never be submitted to a journal. For example, null results are informative but remain harder to publish in traditional journals; preprints provide an avenue for sharing them. Or the preprint may have reached its target audience without the need for publication in a traditional journal.
Sharing a preprint (ensuring it is flagged as not being peer reviewed by a journal) allows you to receive feedback from the research community, and this will ultimately improve the paper whether you submit it to a journal for further peer review, or simply revise the preprint.
How to submit a preprint
1. Check your journal’s policy
If ultimately you intend to submit your preprint to a traditional journal, search Sherpa/Romeo and check that your intended journal allows preprints (most do)
2. Identify a suitable preprint server
There are several discipline-specific servers, including arXiv (chiefly for physics, mathematics and computer science); bioRxiv for biology; PsyArXiv for psychology and SocArXiv for social sciences. For an up-to-date list, including submission formats, guidelines and licences supported, please see this research preprints server list
3. Seek co-author consent
Get co-author consent to submit the preprint, including the choice of preprint server and license (see point 5)
4. Submit your preprint
Upload instructions differ between preprint servers, but the process can be compared to submitting to a traditional journal
5. Add a licence
The copyright of the preprint is usually retained by the author or the author’s institution. Although adding a licence to your preprint isn’t mandatory, it is recommended as it communicates to others how your work may be reused. The choice of licence is up to you. Many authors choose to use one of the Creative Commons licences. Contact the Library (email@example.com) for help with selecting a licence.
6. Update and resubmit your preprint
You can update your preprint and then submit a new version at any time. When you upload the new version, you will see that the old version(s) remains saved, and the new version will be labelled with the version number.
Addressing common concerns around preprints
Preprints do not imply low quality
Early versions of articles not having undergone peer review can raise a red flag in terms of quality and credibility of the findings. However, as long as the preprint versions are clearly indicated as non-peer-reviewed, it is the responsibility of the readers to evaluate the research just as they should evaluate any source. Preprint servers also offer the opportunity to support open discussion/peer review of the papers.
Preprints do not typically preclude publication
Traditional journals do not generally consider preprints to be publications. Most journals will accept articles that have been shared as preprints, but occasionally a journal will not. Sherpa/Romeo is a searchable database that aggregates publisher preprint (and postprint) policies. Check the policies of your intended journal ahead of submitting a preprint.
Publishing early doesn’t mean that you will be scooped
Posting a preprint is more likely to prevent scooping. By posting a preprint you have created a public, time-stamped document, and therefore established the precedence of your work.
- Video introduction to preprints and bioRxiv by Dr Arnoud van Vliet (Surrey) (van Vliet, 2021)
- Primer on preprints (UK Reproducibility Network, 2020)
- Ten simple rules to consider regarding preprint submission (Bourne et al., 2017)
- A guide to posting and managing preprints (Moshontz et al., 2021)
- A practical guide to preprints (Hettne et al., 2021)
- Short course on sharing preprints (FOSTER)
- Video by Chris Graf (Wiley) on the benefits of preprints for researchers (UKRN, 2021)
- Between fast science and fake news: Preprint servers are political (Heimstädt, 2020)
- What to do if you’re asked to remove a citation to a preprint (ASAPbio, 2021)
- Caution, preprint! Brief explanations allow non-scientists to differentiate between preprints and peer-reviewed journal articles (Wingen, Berkessel, & Dohle, 2021)
- On the value of preprints: An early career researcher perspective (Sarabipour et al., 2019)
- Lessons from arXiv’s 30 years of information sharing (Ginsparg, 2021).