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The biggest point to remember is that preprint servers are not peer-reviewed journals.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:


            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.


ESSOAr is here

The Earth and Space Science Open Archive is up and running. This is a new preprint server created under the leadership of AGU with technical and financial backing from Atypon and Wiley. Over a dozen scientific societies are participating in ESSOAr, advising on the development, structure, and policy of the site. It was announced in Eos back in September but it is now accepting submissions as of late January.


            In the middle of the central graphic on the website is a search tool, to browse what is already uploaded to this pre-publication archive. There are several space physics posters already in the system. Yes, posters. If a meeting is approved by the advisory board, and pretty much all AGU-related meetings should be approved, then those that presented posters at the meeting will be able to upload a PDF of their poster to ESSOAr. That is, ESSOAr is more than just a preprint server but is also filling a unique niche in capturing the scientific content of the conference poster hall and allowing for a virtual poster session after the meeting.

To add content, you first have to log in to the system, which is done with your ORCID username and password. This allows you access to the author dashboard link along the top menu bar. The author dashboard gives you a second menu bar across the top, like this:


showing you all of the stages of submitting a poster or manuscript preprint to the server.

I went through the submission process with my Fall AGU poster and it is fairly easy. I think the trickiest thing was picking a license agreement for it. ESSOAr offers 4 levels of license. In the footer of all pages, there is a link to a nice Frequently Asked Questions list available about ESSOAr. One of those questions is about the license levels. It’s good to read this first. All levels require users to provide proper attribution back to this ESSOAr posting, but some prohibit commercial or derivative use. It’s also good to read through the fine print at the user terms and conditions.

Material posted here is not peer reviewed. There is a long list of researchers on the editorial board that check to make sure that submissions are within the scope of scientific endeavor appropriate for inclusion in the server. They do not, however, offer corrections or suggestions to the material. That’s on you.

Once something is posted, you can “revise” but not delete it or remove it. This is probably not needed for poster submissions, but manuscript preprints could be revised with subsequent iterations of the paper. Once published a link to the journal version of the manuscript should be added to the ESSOAr version.

Like preprint posts to arXiv, preprints put here are excluded from the similarity cross-check conducted on all manuscript submissions to AGU. In fact, AGU is making it easy for authors to upload to ESSOAr and then “transfer” some of the information you just typed over to a formal submission to an AGU journal. And the reverse, too: submission to GEMS will now have a link to also post on ESSOAr.

I’ll have other posts on the benefits and challenges of preprint servers. For now, happy posting.

Start Authorship Discussions Early

While on our AGU Pubs trip through China last month, a good piece of advice that AGU Senior VP Brooks Hanson made in his “author advice” presentation was to start conversations about authorship early in the research process. As a researcher goes through the scientific process, the person will most likely discuss the research with colleagues or even get help and resources from colleagues. The interaction could be at the initial stage, when they see something strange in the observational or numerical data and have those initial conversations about what it could be. The interaction could occur at the literature search stage of seeing of the weird thing is already explained by some previously published study. That is, the term “literature search” could be asking a colleague down the hall about a topic and following whatever leads they suggest. The interaction could be at the time of developing the initial hypothesis of what is happening in this strange thing. It could also be in the formulation of the experiments to test that hypothesis, or in the act of conducting those experiments (whether they be data analysis tasks, numerical model runs, new lab or field data collection, or a new theoretical derivation). Or, the interaction could happen very late in the process, at the stage of writing up the study for presentation or publication.

There is a very broad spectrum for this level of interaction of the researcher with all of these different people. It could be participation in a group meeting, where the person chimed in with a few comments or suggestions. It could be a 5-minute talk in the hallway. It could be an hour of flipping through plots on a screen together. It could be writing a new chunk of analysis software or a new subroutine in a model. It could be making plots. Not only should the time involvement be considered, but the significance of the involvement should also be considered. A five-minute conversation that completely changed your thinking on the subject might be worth coauthorship, while many hours of regular participation in a group meeting at which you mentioned the work might not rise to the level of coauthorship. As a research community, we’ve been making this judgment for a long time but, even still, there are no hard and fast rules on what contribution warrants coauthorship.

Dr. Hanson’s advice: broach the question of authorship early. With the CRediT list of author contributions handy, as well as the AGU ethical guidelines of who should be an author, including AGU Council’s thoughts on this topic, researchers should have frank and honest conversations with colleagues making contributions to their work. When you think that someone’s involvement is rising to the level of coauthorship on the eventual presentation and publication of the work, then talk with them about it. Most of us wait until the paper is written before we start to have these conversations with those outside the immediate “primary author” core group (which could just be one or two people). Author role #10 on the AGU page above is worth repeating here:


All coauthors are responsible for the “quality and integrity of the submitted and published manuscript.” Which means that, to be a coauthor, you pretty much have to participate in the “writing – reviewing and editing” CRediT role. That could be your only involvement, but those that participated in the “conceptualization” of the study should also review and edit the manuscript before submission. If someone isn’t prepared to take on the reviewing and editing task, then their contribution has to be very strong in one of the other contributor roles to warrant coauthorship.

So, researchers honing in on results worthy of a manuscript:

  • Make an agreement with potential coauthors, saying something like this: “I think that what you’ve contributed so far warrants coauthorship on my future paper, but there is still more for you to do to get your name on the paper – please read the paper.” You should extract from them a promise to read and comment on the manuscript; without it they probably should decline to be a coauthor.
  • Offer coauthorship to all colleagues that significantly contributed to the work. Think about who impacted the research at each stage of the scientific process and offer them the chance to be a coauthor, with, or course, the additional work of “reviewing and editing” the manuscript.

The question still remains, what amount of interaction rises to the level of a “significant scientific contribution to the work?” I’ve addressed it here but it’s a subjective judgment call.

New AGU Style Guide

As reported by Brooks Hanson in his Editors’ Vox article last week, AGU is unveiling a new style guide for papers next month. The last major change was in early 2014 when AGU dropped the print version of nearly all of its journals and then made the switch from double to single column in the PDF formatted version of each paper.

The major change is the adoption of and adherence to APA Style. I had to look it up, too: APA is the American Psychological Association. It is already used across quite a few scholarly journals, including most of those published by Wiley, so this will help their production staff and reduce the inadvertent errors sometimes introduced in this final publication step.


            For you, the authors of AGU papers, the biggest changes are with citations and references. First, the adoption of APA style means that AGU is making the switch from brackets around citations to parentheses. Second, we get to use an ampersand, &, when citing a paper with only two authors. Third, when a paper has 8 or more authors, the reference list should include the first 6 names, then an ellipse, and then the last author’s name. Yes, that’s right, if there are only 8 names, then just the seventh name in the list is replaced with a series of dots. There are a few other small changes, but these are probably the most notable ones. Okay, one more little thing: APA style recommends usage of the serial comma, so I am happy guy.

AGU as two useful websites for you on this, the brief guide and the full style guide. I think that it should be an easy transition.

One notable deviation from APA style: the use of “et al.” for citing papers with 3 or more authors. AGU will continue its custom of using “et al.” after the first author’s name for all citations to such papers. The official APA style, however, says to list all coauthors on first citation of each paper. I am glad that AGU is not following this formatting rule.

New manuscript templates are not yet available. I’ll have another post on this when they are ready and online, which should be later this month. Wiley staff will start implementing the APA style on papers accepted in AGU journals starting September 1.

Remember, AGU accepts initial submissions in just about any format so you don’t have to switch right away. At some time in the near future, though, these new guidelines will become the norm. So, you should try to follow them as soon as you can.


Transparency In Authorship Roles

There is an ongoing discussion about if and how to change the way we attribute authorship on academic publications. I wrote about it long ago but the discussion is still going on. Here is a recent development: AGU Past President Marcia McNutt (the current president of the National Academy of Sciences) and AGU Publications Director Brooks Hanson are coauthors on this paper arising from a recent NAS workshop. Click on the “Preview PDF” button just below the author list to see the full manuscript. It’s not policy yet, but they want feedback, so please feel free to leave a comment on the preprint site or even contact the authors.

The main point: AGU, and many other leading scientific societies and academic publishers, would like to move towards a new model of authorship. Specifically, all authors on a paper would click items in a pull-down list of possible author roles. Even more specifically, the academic publishing leadership is honing in on CRediT, Contriubtor Roles Taxonomy, as the “best available” list of authorship options. More details on CRediT can be found here.


            CRediT was developed by CASRAI, the Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information, is a nonprofit group with the mission of creating uniformity in academic research, not just standardization in paper authorship roles but CV content, research data management, research output types, and other academic research related activities. ORCID is working with CASRAI and the thought is that your ORCID account would list this information alongside each of your papers.

As far as I know, each author would still get full credit for every paper in their h-index and other such research impact metrics. This makes me like it much better than I used to, because I don’t think that author credit should be reduced when additional authors are added to a paper. That might cause people to omit coauthors that deserve to be listed. However, I like the role designations, as it would hopefully reduce honorary authorship additions, which is a bad practice I hope all of you avoid.

Here is a good article about this proposed change in authorship attribution. I think that this line really clarifies the need for adopting this change: “The project will help to improve accessibility and transparency around who did what to support peer reviewer selection and help researchers identify suitable potential collaborators.” That is, it’s about enabling future work. For example, a reader likes a certain methodology used in a paper, but the list of coauthors alone isn’t that helpful in knowing who came up with this. The reader can look at the CRediT role listings and contact the authors that actually came up with the methodology.

This change is above my pay grade as an editor of a specific journal. So, if you have feedback on the general process of academic paper contributor role taxonomy, then contact the authors of the paper linked above. I do, however, have some small say in how quickly it is adopted at JGR Space Physics. If you have input on this specifically for JGR Space Physics, then let me know.