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Preprints in Paleontology: Really That Radical?

Brain endocast of the duck-billed dinosaur Arenysaurus, originally described in a preprint. CC-BY, modified from Cruzado-Caballero et al., 2015.
Brain endocast of the duck-billed dinosaur Arenysaurus, originally described in a preprint prior to formal publication. Despite this, the paleontological community did not collapse in upon itself. CC-BY, modified from Cruzado-Caballero et al., 2015.

The topic of preprints for paleontologists has gotten a nice flurry of discussion this week, thanks to a blog post by Liz Martin-Silverstone. Preprints, for those who are not familiar, are non-final and unpublished versions of a manuscript made available online prior to formal publication. The reasons to do so are many, including solicitation of comments from interested parties, establishing priority on a particular discovery, or providing a citeable unit for one’s colleagues. Of course, there are also some concerns, such as the wisdom of circulating potentially unreviewed materials, changes between manuscript submission and publication, possibility of ‘claim jumping’ (both by and against preprint authors), and more. All of these are discussed by Liz and the comment thread at her blog post, but something struck me during this discussion.

Namely, we’ve had the discussion before, concerning conferences, conference presentations, conference abstracts, and citation/discussion of these abstracts. Within paleontology, it is not uncommon to read and cite relevant conference abstracts if a more formal paper has not yet followed or will not follow. There is some debate about whether or not this is a good thing, but in my view it can be a helpful way to credit work when other types of citation are not possible. That’s not dissimilar from the situation for preprints.

So, I wanted to expand upon one particular thought I had:

Is posting a preprint substantively different from giving a conference presentation or publishing a conference abstract?

I would argue that no, it is not, in most respects. Let’s look at various concerns about preprints, to see how they compare with conference presentations and abstracts. (this list is quoted and paraphrased from Liz’s original post, so I will be brief)

Concerns About Preprints (Compared to Concerns About Conference Presentations and Abstracts)

  • Preprints: “Someone could steal my work.”
    • Yep, applies to conferences, too. Or any other time someone muses anything out loud or online.
  • Preprints: “But what about all the mistakes?”
    • Yep, applies to conference presentations and abstracts, too.
  • Preprints: “Why would a journal publish something already online?”
    • Reputable journals are generally OK with presenting something at a conference, with which there is an associated abstract. Preprints really shouldn’t be much different.
  • Preprints: “Why not just wait for the final paper instead of an unformatted manuscript?”
    • Let’s rephrase that: “Why not just wait for the final paper instead of presenting at a conference?” The way these questions are at odds with scientific discourse should be apparent.
  • Preprints: “[Work] in preprints is not peer-reviewed, or edited, and some people have concerns that any incorrect information will be propagated.”
    • Conference presentations and abstracts are unreviewed also, except at the most basic levels.
  • Preprints: “But how do I know what happened to the preprint afterwards?”
    • Conference abstract volumes are scattered with the bones of unfinished or unpublished projects. And in cases where something was eventually published, it is actually pretty easy to draw a link between the conference title, abstract, and the final paper. I have faith that my fellow scientists can do the same.

In other words, I see few essential differences between conference abstracts/presentations and preprints for unpublished papers. Both have their issues, but both also have (potential, and considerable) advantages. I worry that we are so concerned about possible (but rare) worst-case scenarios that little change happens within the profession.

Considering our field’s long history of conferences and conference abstract volumes touting unpublished work, are preprints really that radical of a step?

  1. Thanks for sharing my article Andy!

    I agree with you on pretty much everything. I think that the vast majority of the concerns that people have about preprints are the same that people have about conference talks, although I do see that having all of the information out there does allow for people to potentially use it for their own means more than from a conference talk. But the way that the community should shift is that once a preprint is out, no one can steal the work because it’s already published.

    After talking to my partner about this and how it works with the arXiv, he said that publishing it first on the arXiv doesn’t automatically give you priority (at least in his field), it still has to go through peer review. Only after it goes through peer review, does priority get decided based on who put it on the arXiv first. This way, you get the science out ASAP and then once it goes through peer review, you have the benefit of being first.

  2. One additional advantage is that pre-prints are free! Anyone can access them, free of charge. They help to show the ‘value’ that publishers truly add to the final versions of manuscripts.

    One difference between pre-prints and conferences too, and which came up in the conversations about the use of social media at academic conferences, is the different level of ‘public’ in which both are. While conference presentations are usually exclusively for an academic audience comprised of your peers, posting a pre-print releases that information to the world (or at least, the world with internet access). While I don’t think that’s a concern, as such, I do see some people potentially having issues with that, for one reason or another.

    Post pre-prints. Zuul commands it.

  3. Elsewhere, a colleague noted that preprints contain far more detail than conference talks or abstracts – I gave that some thought while writing the piece, and agree that the amount of detail in a preprint will generally be more than that for an abstract or the accompanying presentation. But when it comes down to it, an abstract or presentation still have all of the stuff required for potential positive and negative effects. In 99.9% of cases, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference (in my opinion).

  4. Agreed! And thanks for the insight on arXiv use…it really is about community standards and the community standing up for how they want things run.

  5. I suppose it comes down to a matter of scale — the more people know about something, the more possibilities for harm. I’m still not terribly convinced by that argument, given that abstract volumes contain a good chunk of the stuff needed to scoop an idea, but also recognize others have differing opinions.

    On the other hand, I increasingly wonder why we as a field stand for situations that create and require a “top secret” level of paranoia. Is that really who we want to be? And if so, why? But that’s a topic for another blog post.

  6. You make one point, but I think it bears emphasizing. SVP abstracts are notorious for their low rate of ever being followed up by a peer-reviewed paper. I can think of dozens of SVP abstracts in just the past decade that were never followed up with published research, and a serious search would turn up a significant percentage, since we have so many presentations by amateurs, students, and others. (Paleo Society or GSA, by contrast, has almost no amateurs presenting at meetings). I don’t take SVP abstracts very seriously because of their poor track record, especially having served on the Program Committee for 11 years and Chair for 5 of them.
    In contrast, a preprint shows that the authors have at least jumped through most of the hoops of getting the work finished and in publishable form, so there is a high likelihood it will appear in print soon.

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