Should You Post Your Biomedical Paper to A Preprint Repository?
Based on everything I have read over recent months, my answer to the title question would have to be a resounding Yes! With one major caveat that I’ll discuss at the end of this post.
A preprint is an advanced draft of your full paper which has not yet been submitted to a journal. Upon reaching this stage in your writing process, you can choose to submit your manuscript to a journal, or to upload it to a preprint repository.
Currently, the repository that is relevant to manuscripts authored by biomedical professionals is Bioarxiv which has been operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory since 2013.
A paper that is uploaded to Bioarxiv, undergoes a very cursory check to ascertain that it is scientific, not plagiarized and does not pose any immediately-obvious risk and then, it becomes available for reading by the public, without any peer-review. This can happen within a day of uploading the manuscript. The uploaded article can be cited (it is assigned a digital object identifier; DOI), and readers can comment on it. Bioarxiv expands the exposure of uploaded preprints by posting links on twitter, providing your peers with a more accessible and familiar user-interface option for commenting on your paper.
The main advantage to this type of exposure is the feedback that you could potentially receive from researchers in your field or from those with complimentary interests. You can use comments to improve your manuscript much faster than the full review process of a journal would entail, potentially increasing your chances of being accepted for publication. You can later upload a revised version of the paper for another round of comments from your peers, which will be available alongside your originally-posted draft.
I have previously discussed at length the choice of target journals for publication based on the goals of publishing your article (here and here). If your goal is to establish collaborations, then a discussion of work that is not yet final, fostered in the setting of such a repository, can serve as a good starting point for a collaboration. If your work is on a very “hot” topic, uploading to a repository has the added benefit of providing your manuscript with a time stamp, reducing the risk of being “scooped”. In a very interesting and informative blog post, Prof. James C. Coyne has mentioned that journal editors now look through preprint repositories and may be inclined to invite you to submit your paper for publication in their journals. However, I assume this is only relevant to manuscripts reporting on high-impact research that would have no trouble being accepted irrespective of the preprint posting. Of note, Bioarxiv is a general life-sciences repository and is not focused on medical and/or clinical research. It currently accepts only clinical manuscripts reporting on studies in Epidemiology or on Clinical Trials. Plans to launch a clinical preprint repository called MedArXiv have been recently announced by the Yale School of Medicine. In the ScienceNews report on the announcement, responses to the plan were described as being “mixed”. While the value of such a repository for promoting clinical research was acknowledged, some have expressed concerns that exposure of clinical research data to the public without peer review can be hazardous to patients.
My personal opinion on this matter is that scientific results should be shared, and the more transparency, the better. As it stands, results of successful industry-sponsored clinical studies are made public through press releases a long time before any peer-reviewed articles are published. The hazard of premature exposure of results in a clinical preprint repository may be more relevant to smaller clinical studies, whether industry-sponsored or academic, that do not get press-releases. Still, I believe that the potential benefit of disseminating important information to researchers, and promoting fruitful discussions, outweighs this risk. Moreover, a member of the public reading results on such a server will be able to critically-assess them with the help of comments pointing out any study-design and result-interpretation flaws.
The one caveat to my glowing recommendation is the fact that some journals may consider this to be “prior publication” and in non-compliance with the journal’s ethical publication policies. There is a continuously-updated list of journals that allow posting of preprints in Wikipedia. Note that the Bioarxiv policy does not allow removal of manuscripts from the repository and you will not be able to take down your post for the purpose of submitting the paper to a journal that does not accept pre-posted manuscripts. Thus, if you already have a specific submission target in mind, make sure that it accepts manuscripts that have been posted in some version on preprint servers, using the Wikipedia list or through direct communication with the editorial staff. Upon submission to a journal, the fact that the paper has been posted in the repository must be clearly stated in the letter to the editor. You can include a link to your uploaded manuscript as reference in your letter.