A preprint is a draft of a scientific paper that has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Authors can submit a final, draft or even incomplete version of their article to an archive or open preprint server (arXiv.org being the most well-known). They can then receive feedback and comments from other scientists via a kind of informal peer review process, before redrafting their paper through several iterations prior to submitting to an established peer-reviewed journal.
The rationale behind this is that preprints make science publically available on a short timescale, unlike traditional peer review, which can take several frustrating months. Researchers effectively have access to a whole community of “peer reviewers” who can offer constructive (hopefully) criticism. Research published as a preprint also potentially reaches a wider audience than findings published in traditional subscription journals.
arXiv.org was established 20 years ago and deals with mathematics and physics papers. However, the newly established commercial open access publisher PeerJ specializes in biological sciences and provides a preprint server and a peer-reviewed journal. BioRxiv at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is another that deals with biological sciences.
To many traditionalists, this may seem like a simple route for avoiding formal peer review, thereby opening the floodgates to the publication of poorly conceived and executed research. After all, in the “publish or perish” world of academic science, getting your work out there can make the difference between being employed or not, thus driving some individuals to desperate measures.
However, little evidence suggests that this is indeed the case, as these archives require that authors are endorsed by an existing author, or they have affiliates who screen papers to ensure that they actually contain actual academic science. Also, these archives rely on a degree of self-policing by the authors themselves, who presumably want to protect their hard earned reputations by publishing good science.
A major advantage of preprints is that they offer a route for the publication of negative results, which are so often looked down upon by traditional journals looking to publish work that is cutting edge, en vogue, or ground-breaking. Another advantage is that, like open access, the number of people reading the research is likely to be much higher, thereby nourishing the culture of openness and exchange that is often (and sadly) lacking in science today.
Preprints are unlikely to take over from established journals any time soon, but they do offer a novel and exciting way of getting research published in a format that can be read and reviewed by an extremely wide audience.