The thing that pushed me to post a preprint

I have mixed feelings about preprints. On one hand, I like the fact that they allow for the exchange of ideas on pace with the rate that science happens. On the other hand, in ecology, the concept is preprints is all muddled. In the fields where preprints originated and are now standard practice (physics, math, astronomy, computer science), it is typical for authors to post preprint manuscripts to a public site (such as arXiv) as they’re finishing up a final draft or when they submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. Historically, the reason to do so was to have a nicely formatted version of the paper [1] since these fields use the lightweight TeX for writing and formatting that you could then point your colleagues to, enabling rapid dissemination of ideas within your research community. These days, it’s just as easy to email a PDF to colleagues who might be interested in your not-yet-published paper — and I suspect that this is the norm in ecology.

For fields like ecology where preprints are not the cultural norm, the idea of the preprint is getting swept up in the broader Open Science movement. Preprints are billed as a way to get early feedback and a step towards transparency. I rather doubt that the former happens a lot, even in fields where preprints are the norm, and I’m not sure that preprints help that much with transparency. In ecology, where being scooped is usually not a concern, preprints don’t even have the value of establishing first rights to a particular discovery. The only real benefits I see to preprints in ecology are for spreading science more quickly (everyone) and establishing yourself during the long waits while your first papers go through the publishing process (grad students, postdocs).

For me, preprints have always been one of those “I should probably do that because Open Science” things that I never get around to. When I finally finish a manuscript and submit it to a journal, the last thing I feel like doing is spending time on yet another online submission system to post a preprint. So I haven’t.

What has finally pushed me submit a preprint is the ridiculous amount of time it takes for some journals to go from “accept” to “publish.” I am all for peer-review and willing to take the time to do that properly. But it drives me crazy when a paper is accepted, but not actually published until nine months later.

I’m hopeful that as time goes on, all journals will make their way into the 21st century and post manuscripts as soon as they’re accepted. That will help speed up science dissemination. But right now, we’re far from that point. For papers I’ve been on (all in the past couple years), I’ve seen all of the following:

  1. Nothing happens until the paper “goes to press”. When it is published, it appears in print and on the website at about the same time. This can take many months.
  2. The paper is posted as a “preprint” to the journal’s website, but it isn’t considered “published” until a later date, often when it comes out in print.
  3. The paper is quickly posted online as an “online early view” and is considered “published,” but without a journal issue number or page numbers. Later, the paper is put out in print and gets these identifying numbers.
  4. The paper is quickly published online. There is no print version of the journal.

This medley of publishing practices is really confusing, and I very much hope it is just a transitional phase until all manuscripts are posted online shortly after acceptance and considered published right then.

Last week, I pinged the editor of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The journal had accepted a paper of mine [2]with Andrea Wiggins, Ali Swanson, and Brooke Simmons in May, and I wanted to know when it might be published. I was told that it wasn’t even scheduled yet and we were looking at sometime in early 2017. Another nine-month wait! In a journal that is supposed to be at the “frontier.” Ugh. This paper was written in late 2015 and revised in the spring of 2016 (during which time some additional references were added). It will be somewhat out-of-date when it is finally published, as it won’t include literature from 2016.

This paper is on data quality in citizen science, so the content itself won’t be out-of-date, thankfully. But at the same time, I wrote this is paper because the field has needed such a paper for several years. This is a paper that after I spent two years immersing myself in finishing my dissertation, moving cross-country, and having a baby, I was surprised that no one else had written yet. I’ve promised this paper to colleagues to have something to cite — something to point to — to demonstrate due diligence for volunteer-provided data for proposals and in papers.

And so I posted a preprint. Now I can easily send it around to colleagues and they can easily cite it. Just like was done in mathematics back in the 1990’s.

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/09/14/the-thing-that-pushed-me-to-post-a-preprint/


  1. Carl Boettiger

    Nice post.

    I think it is also worth pointing out that preprints have the advantage of being open access (so-called “green” open access, though that’s really only relevant when the paper appears in a subscription journal). Hence “gold” open access / article publishing cost journals never really took off in physics and other fields where OA versions were already available on the arXiv. Perhaps with this is mind, arXiv has always allowed you to post a version paper that has already been accepted (provided the journal permits this and you didn’t sign over copyright to the journal — see sherpa/romeo database).

    I was a bit surprised to learn that bioRxiv, however, expressly forbids submitting papers that have been accepted; regardless of the journal’s own policy. Quoting from an inquiry I made:

    > bioRxiv’s function is intended as a preprint server for sharing and discussion of articles before they are published, therefore, we do not permit new submissions of papers that have been accepted to journals.

    Of course they have no way of knowing if the paper is accepted somewhere until it is published, but I found this policy a contrast to arXiv and the ‘green open access’ role. Like you, while I’m all for such sharing and discussion, I think you hit upon the more practical benefits which are pretty agnostic as to whether or not the paper had been accepted; making it a somewhat pedantic policy.

    For myself, I usually upload a preprint when a paper is submitted, but not always — depending on co-author comfort and other factors. If not, I do always upload an author version eventually as an OA copy on arXiv; which now I think the University of California requires me to do anyway (with their own system if I don’t have a copy elsewhere).

    And unrelated, but I completely share your pain about journal submission systems. It’s still torture for me every time. However, I’ve found arXiv and bioRxiv way easier! Do you think so?

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Oh, huh. I totally did not see the bit about forbidding papers that have been accepted. Oops. (But also, really?! Like you, I find that ridiculous.)

      And yes, submitting to bioRxiv was pretty painless. But I didn’t know that until the first time I did it!

      Where do you submit on arXiv? It doesn’t appear to me to accept ecology papers…

      1. Jeremy Fox

        arXiv will take ecology papers if they also fall within one of the areas in which arXiv accepts preprints. So for instance, mathematical modeling.

        Re: posting preprints as a way to get feedback on your ideas before submitting, this is another cultural thing that varies between fields. In economics, it’s long been the case that preprints are where the latest, greatest intellectual action is; the internet merely changed and (somewhat) democratized how preprints are distributed. In econ, it’s not uncommon for authors to revise preprints in light of comments they’ve received, and even post revised preprints, before eventually submitting a final version to a journal. Journals function mostly to validate and preserve the results of exchanges of ideas that have already happened via preprints. Indeed, economists sometimes complain that too many people end up continuing to rely on early preprints that have since been superseded by heavily-revised preprints or published papers. But economics is unusual as far as I’m aware. And even in econ, I wouldn’t be surprised if many preprints attract little or no substantive commentary.

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