Should biologists cite preprints?

Yes, says Jon Tennant - scholars should cite literature based on relevance and quality, not just because it has been published in a journal

The Biologist 64(4) p11

In 1990 the ambitious CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee built the World Wide Web to help researchers share information rapidly.

Just a few months later, arXiv (pronounced 'archive') was developed as a centralised web-based network for the maths, computer science and physics communities. Nearly 30 years on more than 8,000 'preprints' – academic articles that have not yet been formally peer reviewed – are submitted to arXiv every month.

In the life sciences around 1,000 papers are submitted as preprints every month. Several developments have catalysed the use of preprints in the biosciences, including bioRxiv, an arXiv mimic, and the community-led ASAPbio initiative that encourages the productive use of preprints. Large research bodies including the NIH, MRC and BBSRC now both allow and encourage the use of preprints in grant submissions.

In spite of this growth there is still resistance to preprints. One major barrier is the question of their citation as scholarly works. Some researchers have claimed that it constitutes bad scholarship and that preprints, due to their preliminary nature, are no different to other 'grey literature', such as non-peer-reviewed reports, articles, correspondence etc.

This is part of our academic culture where typically only research that has been explicitly peer reviewed, and therefore has a stamp of certification, is cited.

This is actually quite different from other fields. According to Google Scholar, four of the most highly cited 'journals' of all time in maths and physics are arXiv subsections. In these communities, a preprint is considered to be an establishment of priority for that research, a starting point for further discussion or investigation. In the life sciences, preprints have not yet gained this status.

Attempts to close this value gap have largely focused on making preprints more citable from a technical perspective – for example, provision of better metadata, persistent identifiers (DOIs), and even the look and feel of a traditional journal article. However, researchers don't avoid citing preprints because it's technically difficult. They don't cite them because they are not deemed worthy of citation.

What researchers rely on are journals (and peer review) to take on the responsibility of telling them what is citable. Preprints tell us that the responsibility of the citation lies with the citer, and for some researchers this is scary. However, evaluating the quality and context of research is part of our job.

There are good and bad preprints, just as there are good and bad papers. As research communities we should not be using journals as an excuse to absolve ourselves of the ability to think critically.

I recently established paleorXiv, a community-led preprint server for palaeontology research. It didn't take long for this to spark a lot of discussion, and I even received an email from a senior researcher emphasising fears that it might be used by creationists to 'get one over' on real science. Yikes.

We are still just at the beginning, and there is a long way to go. The biosciences are incredibly diverse, with many subdisciplines – each with its own set of community norms and values. It is understandable that a 'one size fits all' model for preprints will never work across the entire life sciences.

For paleorXiv, we decided to create community-oriented submission guidelines to engage with researchers and help address many of their concerns, particularly regarding preprint citations. To me, the most important is: "Please exercise the same care and judgement you would use for any research output when it comes to the citation and re-use of preprints." That's just good scholarly practice.

Jon Tennant is founder of paleorXiv. He can be found tweeting @Protohedgehog