During the COVID-19 pandemic, preprint servers became a vital mechanism for the rapid sharing and review of vital research. However, discussing the findings of a recent report, Naomi Penfold finds much of the infrastructure supporting non-commercial preprint publications is precariously governed and at risk of being acquired by commercial publishers.
The value of rapid sharing of the latest research findings was underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which there was a flurry of new research manuscripts in biology and medicine, of which an unusually large proportion (~one-third) were posted as preprints. Despite this success, our research has shown that the infrastructure that enables preprints is not sustainably funded.
Preprints are scholarly manuscripts that are shared online (in preprint servers) before they have been formally peer-reviewed. A major selling point of preprint servers is that they offer a free-to-post, free-to-read, faster way to share and discover the latest research findings. This directly addresses two major issues in science publishing: the unaffordability of publishing fees for many scholars, as well as the delay in sharing that can result from lengthy or repeated journal submission and review processes. However, without peer review, there are concerns about the validity and accuracy of the research shared in preprints.
In such a precarious time, researchers could have chosen to favour the more established and trusted journal publishing process for sharing COVID-19 research, and waited a few months while findings went through (expedited) peer review. The fact that many researchers chose to share their work as preprints and/or engaged in efforts to rapidly triage and review preprints, suggests that scholars considered the value of speed of sharing to be outweighed by the risk of misinformation. With the few cases of serious misinformation that were spread through preprints, the response has been advocacy for policy and guidance to support the appropriate use of preprints by the general public, media and policymakers.
And beyond COVID-19 research, the use of preprints to share many types of research has shown what is needed from scholarly communications infrastructure: free, rapid sharing of the latest work with appropriate triage, review, and curation services that curtail misinformation and pseudoscience.
Experimentation with preprints continues, with a growing focus on improving peer review and curation efforts after the preprint has been posted, including efforts to train researchers in peer review, encourage researchers to post reviews on preprints, and ensure the necessary details of the peer review process are captured in metadata (and thus discoverable and transparent to readers and evaluators). It will take some years yet to understand the full value that preprints and preprint review adds to the scholarly communications ecosystem.
In the meantime, it is important we continue to have this space to experiment with how research is shared and evaluated. For the most part, the willingness of scholars to participate in this experiment with preprints has been because they do not need to risk their careers to do so: preprints operate seamlessly with traditional scholarly publishing due to permissive journal policies and the inclusion of preprints in essential scholarly indexing and discovery services. At the same time, the experimentation space that preprints provide to the scholarly community is only possible because most major preprint servers and services have so far been independent from traditional journal publishing, enabling innovation and disruption from the outside. To support a more open research system, and the experimentation needed to design and build this, we need a competitive ecosystem that includes open infrastructure, not more acquisitions or bundling of platforms and services in a few major corporations with all the problems that arise from this monopolisation. But, if open and independent preprints services develop to operate at a scale matching that of academic literature in general, and in doing so, provide a faster, more transparent and more cost-efficient way to share research results, they will be in direct competition with commercial publishers.
Meanwhile, commercial publishers are responding to the demand for faster scholarly communication by acquiring preprint platforms and services that were initially set up by the scholarly community to address issues with the scholarly publishing industry. The five largest commercial publishers have all now acquired, invested in or partnered with preprint platforms and services. Recently, SpringerNature confirmed their acquisition of Research Square, a journal-linked service that has now accrued more preprints than bioRxiv despite having only been operational for half the time.
Thus, it is critical we explore how to sustain a viable and vibrant ecosystem of preprints infrastructure that is independent of commercial publishers – this is not yet assured. This infrastructure includes servers through which preprints are shared online, as well as tools and services that support the use of preprints. arXiv is a preprint server that is considered essential in several communities in physics, computer science and other quantitative disciplines. Despite successfully building a revenue model that shares the burden between Cornell University, the Simons Foundation and several members and supporters, arXiv’s “funding is still outpaced by [their] growth” – the server hosts over 2 million preprints already and is growing by 10% each year. And while arXiv has been supporting more and more scholars to share and discover preprints, the team behind it has been through significant changes in leadership and is dealing with the urgent need to modernize their 30-year-old technology. As a former Executive Director of arXiv noted, “[arXiv’s success] may not last forever”. Similarly, the recent news that Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has renewed its financial support for the leading preprint servers in biology and medicine, bioRxiv and medRxiv is welcome relief, but this support is temporary, and the team must find a way to continue in the long run. Unfortunately, without greater transparency in the governance of bioRxiv and medRxiv, we do not know if there is anything stopping them from being acquired by a commercial publisher.
A major challenge is the need to keep it free (zero cost) for scholars to post and read preprints. When the Center for Open Science provided a platform for communities to run their own preprint servers, many preprint advocates took up the offer, inviting peers in their discipline or geographic region to share their work as preprints on their own “xiv” (read: archive). Unfortunately, following the introduction of a fee to use the platform, 13 of the 27 community preprint servers have since discontinued their service or moved to a different platform because they cannot afford it or they do not agree with this funding model. An inclusive scholarly communications system cannot place the burden of paying for infrastructure on individual scholars or their communities, especially not in a way that is exclusionary to scholars in the Global South. What we do know is that one route forward may be to encourage academic institutions, philanthropists, and national and international research funders to come together to support scholar-led services – as is proving a success for SciELO, who have introduced a preprint service alongside their multi-national open-access journals offering.
Overall, preprints have demonstrated that a fast and low-cost route to sharing research findings is highly valuable to science and society, and efforts to disrupt or improve scholarly publishing continue today, both with posting preprints and reviewing and using them once online. The question is: how can we support preprint infrastructure to be financially stable enough to remain open for the community to continue to experiment with how scholarship is shared, curated and used?
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