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The peer review process has long been the foundation for ensuring that scholarly publishing is based on sound research. But many believe the process could be improved through the use of preprints and open peer review. Here is an overview of these changes to the peer review process, as well as the advantages and disadvantages.

Preprints and open peer review

Scholarly Kitchen defines a preprint as “the author’s original manuscript, before it has been formally published in a journal.” An author can get feedback on their research paper and make improvements before they submit it to a journal for formal peer review and possible publication. In other words, preprints allow crowd-sourced peer review.

Open peer review (OPR) has several definitions. Traditionally, it has meant a formal peer review for which both the reviewer and the author are known to each other. However, with the recent push toward more transparency in peer review, OPR has come to mean publishing the peer review report alongside the published article — as well as inviting comments and critique from experts, fellow researchers, or in some cases the public.

The push toward both preprints/preprint servers and OPR is a result of problems with the traditional peer review process. The time to publish, bias by reviewers, lack of accountability, and even research subversion and idea theft can undermine the process and cause distrust within the scholarly publishing community.

Benefits of preprints and OPR

Overcoming the problems of traditional peer review is the goal of the trend toward transparency, and preprints and OPR are helping that movement. Here are some of the ways they are improving the peer review process and scholarly publishing:

  • Preprints speed up the process and time to publication, which can take months or years from the time a manuscript is submitted. By publishing a preprint before submitting to a journal, the author can get valuable feedback and make improvements accordingly.
  • When a preprint is posted, the author’s work is timestamped. If there’s any subsequent question of who came up with research results first, the preprint is public, conclusive proof. Preprints are also frequently given a digital object identifier (DOI), so they can be cited by other research papers — which advances the pace of scientific discovery.
  • OPR fosters valuable feedback, and from a wider spectrum. Also, publishing reviews with the online article reduces bias, questionable tactics, or faulty science.
  • Both preprint servers and OPR foster open access for students, researchers, and others who don’t have access or who can’t afford access to the published journal.

Disadvantages of preprints and OPR

Preprints and OPR are not without their problems. For example:

  • There is a chance that a researcher with more resources will scoop the study and be able to publish it first, but that is rare.
  • Some journals won’t publish a research paper that was posted as a preprint first.
  • Releasing preprints could result in citations of the preprint instead of the published article.
  • There is some worry that editors could use the comments of OPR or preprints to decide whether to accept or reject an article for publication, which interferes with the traditional formal peer review process.

Although traditional peer review does have some problems and frustrations, it is entrenched in journal publishing and not likely to go away anytime soon. But the advantages of preprints and OPR likely means that they are here to stay as well. However, it’s important that safeguards are put in place to prevent the peer review space from becoming a free-for-all where anyone and everyone can have a say in what becomes a part of scientific understanding and diminishes quality science.

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