10 tips for submitting a successful preprint
How to stand out in the fast-growing throng.
26 May 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the already rapid growth in submissions of preprints in the biological sciences, but has brought them to the public’s attention as never before.
For example, the medical sciences preprint server medRxiv has already posted more than 3,200 preprints related to the disease. In April, it recorded 10 million views from scientists and the general public.
Many authors in the biological and medical sciences are new to the format. Nature Index asked five experts for their advice on preprint etiquette and best practice.
1. Think of a preprint as the ‘directors’ cut’ of a movie
“The right time to post a preprint is when all the authors are happy that it represents their collective view of their work and its interpretation,” says John Inglis, co-founder of the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint archives.
“We sometimes refer to this as the ‘directors’ cut’, knowing that if the manuscript is submitted to a journal, it may undergo all kinds of change – in length or presentation, as well as revisions of the content itself, after the process of peer review.”
Yet many authors post preprints at the same time they submit to a journal. This can be a missed opportunity, argues Jessica Polka, executive director of ASAPbio, a non-profit aiming to accelerate publication in the life sciences.
“Posting a preprint before journal submission will allow you to get additional community feedback that might improve your paper,” she says. “You might even be approached by a journal editor scouting for submissions.”
Michael Hoffman, a computational biologist and volunteer preprint screener for bioRxiv, cautions against posting too hastily.
“What I wouldn't do is post a preprint that I know has flaws in it I intend to fix before sending to a journal,” he says. “Most people are going to read your manuscript a maximum of one time and you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.”
2. Post your preprint to a recognized server
A number of high-profile COVID-19 preprints have been posted on the authors’ lab or project websites rather than a recognized preprint platform. Our panel agreed that this was not best practice.
“Preprints posted to a lab website won't show up in search tools like EuropePMC and Google Scholar,” says Polka. “They also won't have a DOI [Digital Object Identifier] which makes metadata more accessible, and won't be archived with other literature if the site goes down. In general, they will be less visible than preprints posted to a recognized repository.”
Inglis points out that platforms like medRxiv and bioRxiv have features that don't appear on many lab or project websites, including usage statistics, Altmetric badges, links from preprints to journal-published versions of manuscripts, and link-outs to sites where conversation about individual preprints takes place.
And while there’s nothing to stop authors posting to their own website in addition to a preprint server, this also isn’t recommended.
“You want to limit the number of potential authoritative sources and references for the same document, and get all your citations in one place,” says Hoffman.
3. Think about your target audience
Preprint authors now have a bewildering array of servers to choose from.
Some, such as arXiv, bioRxiv, SSRN and OSF Preprints, are relatively broad in scope. Others focus on particular topics (e.g., PsyArXiv) or geographical regions (e.g., AfricArXiv).
“Authors should consider who their main audience is and choose a server targeting that community,” advises Samantha Hindle, senior content lead at bioRxiv and medRxiv.
Dasapta Erwin Irawan, founder of the Indonesian preprint server INA-Rxiv, suggests that geographically-focused archives may be most appropriate if they represent the target audience.
“It makes sense that if the scope of the preprint is local, then it should go to a national level server, if it’s available,” he says.
4. Check the policies of preprint servers and journals
Servers differ in what types of content they allow. BioRxiv, for example, does not accept review papers or papers that have already been accepted by a journal.
Authors should also check the policies of any journals they wish to submit to, says Polka. For example, some only accept papers that have been submitted as preprints to a non-commercial (non-profit) server.
5. Choose your title and write your abstract responsibly
The attention received by some COVID-19 preprints has highlighted the importance of thinking about how preprints may be interpreted by the general public.
“Media reporting is attracting the attention of a non-scientist audience who may not understand the subtle distinction between a preprint and a peer-reviewed, published journal article,” says Hindle.
“It is important for authors to make responsible decisions when choosing their title, and to make every effort to ensure that the title and abstract accurately conveys the results, without making exaggerated claims that can easily be hyped by the media.”
6. Make sure all your co-authors are happy for you to post the preprint
A common reason for a preprint being withdrawn (the term ‘retraction’ is not used for preprints) is that one or more of the named co-authors have not agreed to its submission.
It’s essential, then, to ensure that all co-authors have given their approval before clicking 'submit'.
Authors will also have a choice of the license they want to apply to their preprint, adds Polka. This too should be discussed with coauthors before submitting.
7. Use social media to promote your preprint
One of the main arguments for posting preprints is to get feedback from the scientific community. But this doesn't always happen – authors need to be proactive.
Dasapta recommends targeting several communication channels in parallel including intra-university mailing lists, WhatsApp groups, and social media.
“Twitter is my go-to social media to reach international attention,” he says. “I tend to use Facebook for Indonesian audiences.”
“Science twitter is growing in size, diversity, and volume,” says Inglis. “I can’t see any downsides to authors using it to promote their work, except that they may find they attract some proportion of trolls and haters and have to deal with them in some way.”
“If authors post a preprint and do not receive any feedback, they can request a review on PREreview,” adds Hindle, referring to the preprint review platform that she co-founded.
For preprints related to COVID-19, an Outbreak Science Rapid PREreview can be requested.
8. Engage with criticism
Many preprint archives allow comments, but few researchers currently use this facility. “Most feedback takes place elsewhere,” says Inglis.
“Commentary appears most publicly on Twitter, less frequently on Facebook. The most common form of feedback, authors tell us, comes privately, not publicly – through direct email or personal contact.”
Inglis likens preprint archives to a scientific conference where the latest findings are presented and discussed. But, as with ‘real life’ conferences, authors should expect criticism and engage with it thoughtfully.
“The scientific process is at its best when ideas and results are challenged from multiple perspectives,” says Hindle.
“Receiving negative feedback is one of those opportunities to step back, look from the other person’s perspective and explore if or how their insights can build on your findings.”
9. Update your preprint
Unlike traditional journal articles, preprints can be updated. “As long as this is permitted by their journal of interest, authors should submit a new version whenever they make significant changes to the manuscript,” says Hindle.
On bioRxiv, for example, 25 to 30% of authors submit a revision of their preprint. The different versions all have the same DOI, but it’s possible to link to specific versions on the server.
bioRxiv includes a “Revision Summary” field that authors can use to indicate changes from the previous version.
If a preprint server doesn’t have such a field, Hindle suggests adding this information as a comment on the preprint page.
“This information is valuable to readers who have already read the previous version and may wish to gain insight about the difference between versions,” she says.
10. Link your preprint to the published journal article
Some preprint servers automatically create links to the published final journal versions of articles. And several journals, including the PLoS journals, now add links back to the preprint.
If the journal does not do this automatically, Polka recommends adding a link to the preprint as a note at the end of the journal manuscript.
“Increased uptake of this practice would help to track the history of the manuscript to increase transparency of the research and highlight the normal progression of scientific discoveries,” says Hindle.
Further reading about preprints
"A systematic examination of preprint platforms for use in the medical and biomedical sciences setting" (link)
"Technical and social issues influencing the adoption of preprints in the life sciences" (link)
"bioRxiv: the preprint server for biology" (link)
List of preprint server policies from ASAPbio
Advice from the US National Institutes of Health for selecting a preprint server