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Open Science with Preprints

An interview with Dr. Maya Mathur, Assistant Professor at Stanford University’s Quantitative Sciences Unit and the Department of Pediatrics. Associate Director of Stanford Data Science’s Center for Open and REproducible Science (SDS-CORES).

Did you know that posting preprints is one method of contributing to the open access movement? We sat down with Dr. Mathur to learn more about her decision to post preprints of her own research. Read on to learn more about preprints from Dr. Mathur.

Preprints Basics

How do you define preprints and why do you choose to publish your own work as preprints?

I define a preprint as a copy of a paper made publicly available that has not yet undergone peer review. I’m in a field that takes a very long time to undergo peer review, it can be two-plus years for stats. A preprint gets the work out there more quickly. It also gets research out there for people who may be behind a paywall. It’s also a norm in statistics. My Ph.D. advisor [initially] suggested it.

What are the personal benefits and challenges you experience from publishing preprints?

Benefits: The paper gets cited earlier, and gets noticed earlier. I post [the preprint at] the same time I submit the manuscript. I have a chance to edit prior to publication based on preprint comments. I think Open Access papers whether offered as preprints or post-prints get more citations due to not having a paywall.
Challenges: People worry about getting scooped. When you have a preprint with a DOI stamped on it, and your name attached to it, it’s actually a disincentive to scoop it. I’ve not heard of anyone getting scooped through a preprint. I think scooping is really hard. You have to be moving much faster than the person who originated the finding in the first place!

What are the benefits and challenges preprints offer to science as a whole?

Benefits: A more agile ecosystem where results are being seen sooner. Preprints help science move faster. They’re really helpful for evidence synthesis. But we always have to read with skepticism whether the publication is a preprint or peer-reviewed. We’ve seen in some realms, COVID-19 for example, that this can be controversial, where the public could take [findings] at face value that need to be read with skepticism. I don’t necessarily read preprints with more skepticism than peer-reviewed publications. A better heuristic is the authors. The signals I get more strongly from a paper are the actual quality of the content over where it was published or if it was peer-reviewed at all. I actually invited a collaborator solely on the basis of a preprint! 
Challenges: Scooping concerns, and the possibility of [papers] being of lower quality. Those are the main downsides.

How has your use of preprints impacted your experience of navigating the peer review process as an author, if at all?

I’ve been lucky to be in a field where journals allow preprints. I do think it’s challenging for investigators in fields like medicine where top journals don’t want information disseminated in any form, including a preprint. When I submit to those journals, I don’t submit a preprint. 

Anonymous peer review can be ethically tricky. I submit to journals that allow preprints and do blinded submissions. If a peer reviewer wanted to google the manuscript, they could find my name. So I do think that’s a challenging situation. I do think there’s an inherent trade-off. I think blinded submissions in general are a little bit tricky. It’s hard to have a watertight blinding system. Keep reviewers honest.

From the other perspective, how do you feel the use of preprints impacts the work of a peer reviewer?

I don’t think it has impacted my peer review that much. I look favorably on manuscripts, broadly speaking, that utilize open science practices. I’ll put that in my comments to the editor that this is a plus for the paper. Open data, code, preprints. All are better reproducible practices.

You are on the leadership team for the Stanford Data Science Center for Open and REproducible Science (SDS-CORES). Would you explain the connection between preprints and open science?

The idea of making research as public as possible. Other researchers may not have full access to journals. The majority of the research we do is funded by taxpayers through the NIH or NSF. They do require [funded] publications to be accessible, but could be very late. I want science to be more accessible to everyone. [Preprints] make science more equitable, and allow people not to rely on expensive institutional subscriptions.

Preprint Advice

What advice do you have for researchers who are interested in publishing preprints but don’t know where to start?

I would say it depends upon personal preference. For me, the easiest and most intuitive framework is OSF preprints. It offers a very natural way to connect other open science objects associated with your paper to the preprints. Registration, code, data, etc. That’s a very good workflow for beginners.

Has publishing a preprint ever impacted your ability to submit a manuscript to a particular journal?

No, but only because I’ve been careful to avoid that problem.

What else would you like to share with the Stanford Medicine Community in relation to preprints?

I would love to see a more robust system of people commenting on preprints. This would help address the concern about preprints not being ready for prime time. I’d like people to be able to comment on preprints with their real name and affiliation and be upvoted and downvoted. This could have helped a lot with the COVID-19 preprints. To me that [system] would be the best of both worlds. Available right away, and subject to some scrutiny. It may work better than peer review!

Sam’s Scholarly Snacks is a Lane Medical Library blog series that covers topics related to scholarly communication. If you would like to see a specific topic covered or have questions about preprints, please contact Sam Wilairat, Research Communications Librarian.

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