Which comes first – research scrutiny, or public dissemination?

Sounds like a riddle – and you could say that it is – the riddle of preprint servers, a form of online publishing that boosts visibility and speed of dissemination, mitigates publication bias, and establishes provenance (public record) of ideas.

All that is possible because preprint servers do not require peer review/acceptance by a scientific journal in order to be viewed (and sometimes commented upon) by anyone connected to the internet.

Matthew Lanktree

There lies the sticking point… With greater research transparency comes the risk of misinformation getting into the wrong hands and spreading like a virus. (COVID research has, in fact, exacerbated preprint server challenges.)

However, aside from a handful of known cases, research on preprint servers is largely rigorous and deserving of scientific attention – and is getting it.

Today, 86% of the top 100 medical journals accept papers that have been on a preprint server; 13% of the big journals do so on a case-by-case basis, notes PHRI Investigator Matthew Lanktree at a recent talk within PHRI.

Paper on preprint servers hosted on a preprint server

The clinician-scientist, working in nephrology genetics, published a paper about preprint servers in kidney disease research in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Before that journal published it in March 2021, Matt Lanktree and team’s paper on preprint servers lived on the preprint server, medRxiv. (How meta is that!)

“There are valid concerns regarding the risk of early adoption of preprinted results before peer review,” he concedes. “However, due to the transparency into the publication process yielded by preprint servers, I think their use will continue to grow.”

More than 6,000 COVID-19 preprint articles came out within four months of the first confirmed case,” Matt notes. “In fact, COVID research accounted for 73% of medRxiv submissions from February to June 2020.”

Launched in 2019, medRxiv has the same funding sources as bioRxiv established six years earlier – the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Around the same time as medRxiv, The Lancet started its own preprint server, and there are others.

Matt Lanktree offers a comprehensive overview of the history, advantages, challenges, and evolution of preprint servers in this slide deck [PDF]. He stresses that further education regarding preprint servers is required among scientists, students, media, and the general public.

Greater discourse will help establish solutions to the new challenges raised by preprint servers, despite their success in overcoming some of the limitations inherent in traditional scientific publishing.

We’ll have to stay tuned to see where this burgeoning trend takes us in research.

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