What is a “Preprint” Anyways?

Medieval printing press

Recently more and more organizations have begun to host papers prior to formal submission and review in what are commonly called “preprints.”  “Preprints” are free to submit and open to read.  Although seemingly new, they have been a common feature in certain scientific disciplines such as physics, math, and computer science for many years.  In fact, the “preprint” repository, ArXiv, receives over 8,000 submissions per month and has been around over twenty years. 

But what in actuality is a “preprint”?  A preprint is a scientific paper that has yet to be reviewed.  Some might argue posting research with out review is dangerous, indeed pre-publication peer-review is what makes a scientific paper scientific, in the opinion of many. 

Despite the lack of pre-publication peer review there have been little qualms about “preprints.” We believe this is because pre-publication peer review is increasingly being recognized for what it is, severely flawed. Additionally, because readers at the outset know the work has not yet been reviewed so they can read the work accordingly.  Not only does this knowledge position the reader to read the work skeptically, which is how we think all papers should be read, but it encourages readers to comment on the work and make the paper stronger. 

Another great advantage of “preprints” is best summarized by the founder of ArXiv, Paul Ginsparg, who said:

“The idea of a central repository was to allow any researcher worldwide with network access to submit and read full-text articles, giving equal entry to everyone from graduate students up.”

Indeed, graduate students to Fields Medal winners have posted some important work on ArXiv.  And while many use preprints as a stepping-stone to traditional publishing avenues some rightly view it as an end itself.  One such researcher, Grigori Perelman, solved a 100 year-old math problem posted it on ArXiv and it remains there today.  This seminal work was deemed the “breakthrough of the year” by Science in 2006 and subsequently earned Perelman the Fields Medal, which he declined.

If preprints are free to read, free to post, and have proven to be effective, why aren’t all scientific papers “preprints” and does the term “preprint” make sense?  Additionally, how will the process we establish at The Winnower be different?

To begin with, we think the term “preprint” is a misnomer.  Posting an article online is, by definition, publication.  Paying thousands of dollars to publishers and having two to four peers evaluate it doesn’t change that fact.  Secondly, we believe all papers should be “preprints” in that all papers should start their life published openly. 

This is why the publishing model we will use at The Winnower will be very close to that of ArXiv.  However, we plan to change five key things in hopes of further improving upon the model established by ArXiv.

  1. The Winnower should be an end in itself, not a stepping-stone to traditional publishing, which is flawed in many ways.
  2. Reviews should always be open and associated with the article for all readers to evaluate.  These should be structured so that the accumulation of reviews can be summarized.
  3. We think authors should “buy” into the system so that the platform can without a doubt be sustainable.  This is why we will charge $100 per publication.
  4. All scientific disciplines should be eligible for publication.
  5. We think the term “preprint” should no longer be used.  Papers posted on The Winnower are by definition published and all reviews coming afterwards are post-publication.

We hope that with these changes we can transform publication into a transparent endeavor from start to finish.