The rising tide of preprint servers

Progress in any industry can have a habit of sneaking up on those within it. Changes that were once new, unknown and even derided become a standard part of the seascape. It’s possible that we are seeing this phenomenon with preprint servers – online repositories that host articles before their publication in a peer-reviewed journal. They promise an instant audience, large or small (and growing).

Preprint servers are not new. ArXiv, the first widely accepted preprint server, has hosted papers in the physical sciences since 1991. Now the biggest, with over 1.2 million articles deposited since launch and more than 100,000 in 2016 alone, it has become an integral part of the physical sciences publishing process. For various reasons, preprint servers were not accepted as early and as easily in the life sciences, chemistry or the humanities. In 1998, Paul Ginsparg, the founder of arXiv, was invited to a meeting of biologists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) to explain how and why it worked. Almost 20 years later, he is explaining again – but this time, the audience may be more receptive.

After a decades-long journey, preprint servers are now becoming an important part of research in many fields. Most notable perhaps is bioRxiv, an arXiv-licensed but independent preprint server provided by CSHL Press for the life sciences. Launched in 2012, bioRxiv received over 4000 submissions in 2016 and has had more than 30,000 contributing authors since launch. The success of bioRxiv has been followed by recent or forthcoming launches of preprint servers in other fields: chemRxiv in chemistry; AgriXiv in agriculture and allied sciences; and SocArxiv in social science, among others (see Table for further details).

Other evidence of the wider acceptance of preprint servers abounds. Most journals have previously not considered any submitted manuscript that has appeared elsewhere, but many of the larger, more eminent journals now specifically exempt preprints from this policy. Some, like eLIFE, even encourage deposition on a preprint server while a manuscript is under review in the journal. Crossref began issuing DOIs for preprints in late 2016. Some funding bodies are allowing preprints to be considered in grant applications. In’s top 100 list of the most-discussed journal articles of 2016, the 21st and 28th entries were preprints from bioRxiv and PeerJ Preprints, respectively. A group called the Center for Open Science has developed web infrastructure and services that are facilitating new ‘-rXiv’ services, such as SocArXiv, PsyArXiv, and EngrXiv.

Journals are steadily seizing new opportunities to capitalize on the synergies produced by preprint servers. BioRxiv has a one-click service where authors can directly transfer their preprints to participating journals’ submission systems. PLOS Genetics recently announced that a dedicated team of editors will trawl preprint servers for potentially suitable articles. ScienceOpen, an open-access publisher, posts arXiv papers on its own website and then contacts authors offering publishing services.

Further evidence of the acceptance of preprint servers across a wide section of the research community comes from the increasing sophistication of publishing practices. EMBO Journal offers an ‘extended scooping protection’ mechanism whereby other manuscripts posted to a preprint server after the date of submission to the journal will not influence any assessment of novelty; if the manuscript itself was first posted to a preprint server, scooping protection applies from the date of posting. Many journals now participate in bioRxiv’s forward linking feature: once a preprint is formally peer-reviewed and published, the preprint server links to that article. There is also evidence of sophistication in author behaviour: submissions to arXiv spike at 4pm US Eastern Standard Time because articles posted at this time are featured at the top of the daily publication announcement, which may lead to a citation advantage.

It seems clear that preprint servers are gaining traction, so why was there such resistance? What are the possible consequences for scholarly publishing? Find out in our next post.

NameFieldsStart date# 2016 submissions (approx.)
Preprint servers
arXiv Physics, mathematics, computing, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics1991113,308
bioRxiv Life sciences20134712
PeerJ Preprints General2013~1000
Preprints (MDPI)General2016~1000
SocArxiv Social sciences2016633
PsyArXiv Psychology2016191
ChemRxivChemistry2017Not launched
AgriXiv AgricultureUpcomingNot launched
Services with preprint functions
Social Science Research Network (SSRN)Social sciences199466,310
Figshare General2012Unknown
Zenodo General2013318
F1000Research General2013215
Authorea / Winnower General2015 / 2014Unknown
Other services
mp-arc Mathematics199197

Authors: Dugald McGlashan and Caroline Hadley