MAR 17, 2023 10:37 AM PDT

Do You Know What a Preprint Is? Most People Don't

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

A new study that surveyed 415 people who were presented with the results from a preprint study on COVID-19 found that 75 percent of them did not really understand what a preprint is. This research, which was reported in Health Communication has agreed with other studies that have found that "many nonexperts do not understand the term 'preprint.'" While people in this survey understood that "tentative conclusions" were not yet firm results, they did not have a similar opinion when the term "preprint" was used instead. Pre-prints are scientific manuscripts that have not been through peer-review, a rigorous process that can provide some assurance that claims made in a paper are valid.

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"What I tell my students is to think about any one study as just a drop in the bucket of knowledge about a phenomenon," said corresponding study author Chelsea Ratcliff, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. "No single study proves or disproves anything, and we may need an extra degree of caution when it's a preprint study. I see value in preprints, but just telling the public that it's a preprint is not enough to give them that sense that it's preliminary evidence."

I have been a part of a few different research teams who published about 30 articles between 2002 and 2020. In my experience, the peer-review process typically consists of a few steps. First, research, usually from a group of researchers at an academic institution or sometimes, a corporation, submits data to a journal in the form of an article or report. Financial interests have to be disclosed. Editors at that journal decide whether the manuscript will be considered for publication. These articles may be rejected outright, and the study authors might then start over at another journal. When the report is considered for publication by a journal, it is sent to a committee of reviewers. These reviewers are often other people who have published in that journal before, and in particular, individuals who have expertise in the field the article concerns.

The review process is sometimes lengthy. Reviewers have time, usually a few weeks but sometimes several months, to formulate an opinion about an article. They respond to the journal editor with their concerns, often requesting a number of new or confirmatory experiments that will strengthen the conclusions of the report. Sometimes, the reviewers will decide that the article is not suitable for publication, and reject it. Usually, there are three reviewers.

At the journal, the editor will then consider the opinions of the reviewers, and make a judgement about whether to move forward with the manuscript. I personally am aware of only one journal that publishes editorial communications along with their publications, eLife. Most of the time, these communications are not made public. In October 2022, eLife annonced that they were also not going to be accepting or rejecting any manuscripts that have been peer-reviewed; instead, all manuscripts that have been peer-reviewed will be published by the journal. Their publishing model, which they say prioritizes innovation and improvement in science communication, is outlined in the video below.

The research team that submitted the article will typically try to respond to the reviewers' concerns by performing the requested experiments, or making edits to the manuscript or figures. Occasionally they may try to argue that the requested experiments are beyond the scope of the study. Once the requested experiments have been performed, the research team can resubmit their manuscript. The reviewers have a chance to respond to this data as well, and if things go well, no more changes or work will be requested, although that may not always be the case. Finally, the article is accepted for publication when the opinions of the reviewers have been satisfied.

Sources: University of Georgia, Health Communication

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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