Preprint Servers: Challenges

A third (and probably final, for now) post on of ESSOAr, AGU’s new preprint server for Earth and space sciences. The first described it, the second touted it, and now this one is the ethical scold of how best to use it.

The biggest point to remember is that preprint servers are not peer-reviewed journals. Yes, there is an editorial board that checks submissions for scientific scope, but there is no vetting of the accuracy of the content. The editorial check takes a day or two, maybe a week max, but it is not a real review process. Yes, content here gets a DOI, but we should all remember that content on preprint servers are essentially just a step above “private communication” in terms of referencing authority. That is, it could be wrong.

We hope that content on ESSOAr, and any other preprint server, will eventually be published in a scientific journal. Researchers are putting their reputation out there with each new post on one of these servers, so the content is, for the most part, respectable. Go ahead and use it to learn what is being done by your colleagues. Because preprint server content has not been through the peer review process, though, it should be replaced with the “final” version of the study from whatever journal it eventually appears in.

To summarize in a graphic:

Caution-preprints

            Peer review should still be the standard for what is accepted as “knowledge” of the subject. Even this can be wrong but at least it has been thoroughly scrutinized by experts. You should be very skeptical of older preprints on the server (say, more than 2 years since original posting) that lack a link to a final published version of the paper. That work either was not submitted or did not pass peer review. If the former, then it is perhaps the case that the authors found a problem with the study and therefore never submitted that version of the paper. If the latter, then perhaps the editor or referees found a problem with the study and declined publication of it. Either way, the study did not reach its “final” form in the literature.

The advice to the community about older preprints can be summed up like this:

  • Authors: use caution when citing an older preprint.
  • Reviewers: pay extra attention to citations of older preprints.
  • Editors: ask reviewers to check the appropriateness of older preprint citations.
  • Societies: set policy about citing older preprints.

I am told that the astrophysics community, which regularly uses the arXiv preprint server, understands this difference in “publication” levels. That is, research communities can learn to use preprint servers and make it their go-to place for the latest content across a number of journals, as I am told that many in astrophysics do. They also know, however, that when it comes time to write your own paper, don’t rely on preprints as your main entries in the reference list. The astrophysics community, I am told, understands the guidelines about preprint servers and only uses it for finding the latest work on a topic.

We, the Earth and space science research community, should adopt this same mentality about preprint servers, not only ESSOAr but any server (and there are several being created). Such servers should be a place to get the latest studies from across a variety of journals, learning about content as the manuscripts are submitted rather than months later when they are accepted and eventually published. We should only use it for the latest work, though. A preprint server is not the place for full literature searches – those should be done in Web of Science, Google Scholar, Scopus, ADS, or other services that scan the published, peer-reviewed literature. And, as an editor, I strongly urge you to please conduct a full literature search, because a recent study by Mark Moldwin and me showed that the more complete your reference is, the more citations your paper will get (on average).

Use ESSOAr, but know its purpose within the hierarchy of scientific publications.

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