Preprints are good for science and the evaluation of scientists. They remove barriers to the dissemination of work among the scientific community, promoting earlier error detection, increased feedback and the potential for collaboration, faster transfer of ideas among labs and fields, and good practices in evaluation (reading a paper rather than making a snap judgement based on where it’s published). But in addition to these systemic benefits, preprints provide concrete advantages to individual scientists, funders, journals, and institutions.
Early career researchers feel the benefits of preprints most acutely. Papers effectively act as prerequsites for transitions between career stages – defending a PhD, securing a postdoc, gaining a fellowship, or attaining an academic job. In addition to intense pressure to make sure those papers appear in the “right” journals, authors lack control over when a paper will be published. The capriciousness of this process works out terribly for timing career transitions, especially applications to faculty jobs during an annual season.
Preprints relieve some of this pressure by allowing researchers to decide when their own work is ready to be shared with their peers. As a result, including preprints in faculty searches can have several powerful benefits.
1. Discovering candidates without delays
Preprints enable researchers to get work out in front of the community months or even years ahead of the subsequent journal publication. In fact, a recent analysis by EuropePMC (below) reveals that the mean time between biomedical preprint posting and first publication in a journal is approximately 5-6 months, a meaningful time window in the context of faculty search cycles. Accepting or encouraging candidates to send preprints (or even submitted manuscripts) in with their applications can enable a department to identify promising candidates, potentially before their peer institutions do.
Chart by Michael Parkin from http://blog.europepmc.org/2018/07/preprints.html
2. Easing evaluation
Preprints offer a strong benefit over submitted manuscripts: they are easier to evaluate. Because preprints are public, they can be easily and ethically shared with colleagues at other institutions to get their expert opinion on the work. Furthermore, the comments on preprint servers, social media, or on 3rd party review sites can offer more insight into the community’s reaction to a work.
3. Selecting forward-thinking faculty
If a department is interested in recruiting faculty who are interested in communicating openly, identifying collaborators, and seeking feedback, the practice of preprinting may be an excellent indicator.
This attitude is encapsulated wonderfully by James Heathers, who writes:
“Publishing pre-prints sends a message I want to send. They say I am willing to talk. They say I want to be a participant in open culture…Let us speak. Pre-prints say this louder than I can myself.”
4. Focusing on the science, not the journal
DORA principle 4 reads:
“Be explicit about the criteria used to reach hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions, clearly highlighting, especially for early-stage investigators, that the scientific content of a paper is much more important than publication metrics or the identity of the journal in which it was published.”
What better way to eliminate the importance of the journal title in hiring decisions than to not use journal titles at all? With preprints, there can be no temptation to pass judgement on manuscripts based off of something that does not yet exist. Of course, effectively integrating large volumes of preprints into an evaluation process would require a workflow that does not rely on a cursory assessment of journal names. But this should be a goal for all DORA signatories regardless.
Sending a message about your values to job candidates can be as simple as adding the word “preprint” to the appropriate posting. For examples of preprints in job ads from UT Austin, The Rockefeller University, and UC Santa Cruz, please see the ASAPBio list of university policies pertaining to preprints in hiring and promotion.
While changes to hiring practices may seem daunting, remember that preprints are already the norm for other fields.
Of course, encouraging or permitting the submission of preprints doesn’t have to stop at faculty jobs: the same principle could apply to postdoc postings or even graduate school applications.
Jessica Polka, PhD is the Director of ASAPBio and a visiting scholar at the Whitehead Institute.