Electronic preprints: what should the BMJ do?BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7134.794 (Published 14 March 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:794
Clear labelling might be the answer
What should journals do about the circulation of “preprints”—drafts of scientific papers that have not yet been formally published? Within the research community they serve several purposes. Some researchers routinely send such drafts to colleagues for their comments. Others use them as an early warning system, to keep colleagues abreast of research that may take months to get into print. Until recently distributing preprints entailed making multiple photocopies of a manuscript and posting them. The advent of faxes quickened the pace but did little to reduce the workload, which effectively limited their circulation. All this has changed with the internet. Draft manuscripts can now be posted on institutional or individual websites. Hundreds of colleagues, instead of a handful, may now see a preprint before its formal publication. Thousands more internet users may be led to a preprint by search engines, which scour the web's pages for key words.
Some journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, have come down unequivocally against electronic preprints: “Posting a manuscript, including its figures and tables, on a host computer to which anyone on the internet can gain access will constitute prior publication”1—and the journal rejects manuscripts if their substance has been published already. It argues that publishing electronic preprints “sidesteps peer review and increases the risk that data and interpretations of a study will be biased or even wrong.”
The BMJ's stance is similar. Our advice states: “We do not want material that is published in the BMJ appearing beforehand in other media because doctors and patients are then presented with incomplete material that has not been peer reviewed; they cannot make up their own minds on the validity of the message.”2
Before extending this policy to material on the internet, we wanted to hear the views of our authors and readers. We posted a discussion paper on the BMJ's website and received about 50 emailed responses.3 At one extreme were enthusiasts for electronic preprints, who regard them not as scientific papers in evolution but as near enough finished articles. To these respondents, the current long process of peer review and paper publication is detrimental to science and the public health: any way of getting scientific advances into the public domain fast is worth supporting. Some welcomed the opportunity to obtain comments from a much wider pool than traditional peer review allowed for and to have authors address these comments before formal publication. (However, the Medical Journal of Australia's experiment of posting accepted papers on its website and inviting comments from visitors does not suggest that there exists a large pool of qualified referees prepared to provide detailed, high quality reviews of papers on line (C Bingham, personal communication).)
At the other extreme were respondents who thought “too much junk” was already being published. Lacking the skills to distinguish between “valuable material and garbage” journalists and the public could be misled. Where the conclusions of research might change public health policy, medical practice, or patients' lifestyles then full peer review before publication should be the rule. The circulation of preprints should be restricted to those who can properly judge them.
Might there be a middle way? Analogous to the preprint is the conference presentation or abstract, which airs research before it has been formally “written up” and peer reviewed. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (Vancouver group) has decided that policies designed to limit prepublication publicity should not apply to these forms of early communication.4 Perhaps this exception should be extended to electronic preprints, providing they were clearly labelled as such. A warning along the lines of, “Electronic preprint. This research has not yet been accepted for publication by a peer reviewed journal: please do not quote” might sound the right tone. In the words of John Ziman, physicist and philosopher of science, “It must always be clear, in the mind of the listener or reader, whether or not, so to speak, the witness is on oath.”5 Readers of electronic articles need to be able to distinguish easily between formal publication—what is recorded in the minutes of science—and informal comunication, which has a provisional status, prone to amendment and even withdrawal.
Journals would then have to convince the public and the press to trust only those findings published in full in peer reviewed journals—no easy task in a journalistic culture that values getting a story first over getting it right.6 They would also have to show that peer review is a value worth adding to manuscripts7—especially as peer review may be one function of paper journals that the internet does not eventually replace.
The early responders to our preprint on preprints were against them, and this was from a group well versed in the internet. But more recently the realisation has been growing that researchers will use electronic preprints because of their benefits—however much journals may rail against them. Before deciding the BMJ's policy, we would like to know what more of our readers and contributors think, particularly of our suggestion that the clear labelling of electronic preprints on web sites might provide the solution.