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The Evolving Role of Preprints in the Open Access Publishing Landscape: Key Trends and Initiatives

The Evolving Role of Preprints in the Open Access Publishing Landscape

November 2019

Academic journals aren’t always the first place scholars go to disseminate their research. Today many are turning to preprint repositories, online databases traditionally developed for posting copies of manuscripts prior to formal publication. Preprint usage has been on the rise in recent years and now preprint repositories are established for various disciplines including arXiv for math, physics, and other sciences; BioRxiv, for biology; SocArXiv, for social sciences; and more.

As preprints have become more popular, particularly within the context of the open access (OA) movement, their uses have expanded. Today preprints are used not only for posting working papers but also for archiving final versions of articles to make them Green OA; for publishing research datasets, code, and supplemental materials; and even for publishing academic journals via preprint overlay models.

The increase in preprint usage has created new opportunities to disseminate and link OA research outputs, and it has also raised questions to be answered around the present and future roles of preprints in the scholarly communication landscape. How are stakeholders, including funders, librarians, publishers, and researchers, coming together to unpack and further the many uses of preprints? Following are some key examples.

Integrating Preprints into the Traditional Publishing Process via Green Open Access

As the OA landscape has developed, making papers and even datasets, Green OA has emerged as a common practice that is widely promoted by funders and publishers. Many funders now require either pre- or post-publication versions of articles to be submitted to preprint servers to make the research freely accessible, and journal publishers have started allowing, and even encouraging, scholars to post versions of their papers to preprint servers in response. Some research funders have also begun to more formally recognize preprints as research outputs. For example, in January 2017, Wellcome Trust announced that they would start accepting preprints in grant applications and end-of-grant review reports.

As posting preprints has become more common, groups have been coming together across the scholarly communication landscape to determine the best ways to integrate preprints into the traditional publishing process. Among the issues being explored are how preprints should be connected to formal publications, and how the community should distinguish working papers from peer-reviewed manuscripts and final articles. In this area, digital object identifiers (DOIs) have emerged as the predominant solution. Authors can link their preprint articles to the DOI of the final published version, and vice versa, to connect the two and distinguish the version of the record. There are questions around the viability of this solution, as DOIs require active updates to be accurate. The community is coming together to work towards solutions to ensure consistent content registration, as well as clear metadata standards and wider-spread usage of enhanced metadata.

Additionally, initiatives have surfaced around the question of how to connect preprint servers to other publishing systems. A notable example is the Manuscript Exchange Common Approach (MECA). MECA was originally launched to develop data and workflow norms to make it possible to easily transfer manuscripts and peer review data across publishers and manuscript systems, but it also has the potential to help move papers to and from preprint servers and is including this within the project scope.

Launching Preprint Overlay Journals to Lower Publishing Costs

Preprint repositories are not only facilitating Green OA and more widespread dissemination and usage of research datasets and supplemental materials, but also the development of overlay journal publishing models. In the overlay publishing model, a journal performs refereeing services, but it doesn’t publish articles on its website. Rather, the journal’s website links to final article versions hosted on an online repository. In some cases, the final article versions may be mirrored on the journal website. The overlay publishing process usually includes the following steps: manuscript submissions are posted to the journal’s chosen repository, submitted manuscripts are vetted during peer review, and accepted manuscripts are republished to the repository with a registered DOI that certifies the article is a final peer-reviewed version.

Overlay publishing is helping to lower journal costs because, as compared to traditional journals, overlay titles have virtually no production expenses. In recent years, there has been a rise in arXiv overlay journals in particular with notable examples including Discrete Analysis, a non-profit mathematics journal launched by mathematician Sir Timothy Gowers that’s both free to read and free to publish in, and Quantum, a community-led non-profit quantum science journal that’s free to read and has a nominal APC of €200. Quantum is committed to “radical transparency” around its publishing processes and costs.

Developing the Next Generation of Preprints and Institutional Repositories

As initiatives to integrate preprints into the traditional publishing process, new preprint publishing models, and other uses of preprints emerge, there is a need for forward-thinking developments to support the future growth of preprints and other repositories. One initiative in this area is the “Next Generation Repository Working Group.” Launched by the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) in April 2016, the working group is exploring new repository functions and technologies. The results of the working group were released in a 2017 report, which covers 11 new behaviors for the next generation of repositories, including “preserving resources,” “exposing standardized usage metrics,” and “declaring licenses at the resource level.” COAR is now working to implement the outcomes of the working group to make the next generation repository a reality.

In addition to continuing its next-generation repository work, COAR also recently announced that it will work with cOAlition S to help repositories comply with Plan S. Steps COAR and cOAlition S plan to take towards this aim include working with the most widely-used repository platforms to understand their current capabilities and needs, providing guidance around metadata best practices and “standard vocabularies,” and creating a strategic roadmap for developing repositories to support OA even further in the future.

Opportunities and Questions to Answer: Looking to the Future of Preprints

What started as a way to share copies of papers prior to publication has evolved to be so much more. With each new preprint use case comes new questions for the community to answer, from how to distinguish peer-reviewed preprints from working papers, to whether funder mandates should require preprints to be final article versions, to how preprint servers and publishers can ensure that they’re able to sustainably comply with the implementation specifications of Green OA options included in funder mandates such as Plan S. Despite the questions that remain, it seems clear that preprints are here to stay, and stakeholders are showing support for preprints and coming together to determine how preprints can best fit into the current and future publishing landscape.