Why I posted my first preprint

I’ve just published my first preprint. If you’re not familiar with preprints, they are final versions of a paper manuscript that are posted online before they have been peer reviewed.

Long-time followers of my blog will know that I am not a huge fan of preprints. Preprints are not the answer to our angst over peer review, because they involve too many risky assumptions.

So why did I just publish one?

I’ve just submitted my second ARC DECRA application. My DECRA project builds on my current work, where I’m developing new ways of analysing ecosystem services across systems that have different properties. I led a paper on the conceptual framework behind these methods at the start of my current project; but after 8 submissions at 7 journals and 1.5 years of peer review it is still unpublished (new personal record!). Most of our reviews were positive, even though the paper was ultimately rejected. We took all comments on board before next submission – each submission was revised and revised again (put your Table 1 in, put your Table 1 out, put your Table 1 in and shake it all about!). But no matter what we did, we just couldn’t appease the reviewers and editors. Conceptual papers are notoriously hard to publish because of reviewer/editor personal biases.

My preprint paper describes some key concepts that I want to develop in my future work; I had hoped it would be published before I submitted my DECRA application. So after the most recent rejection, I okayed with my co-authors and posted it as a preprint. I did it because I needed to be able to cite my current work in my application, to show that I have already developed the conceptual framework underlying the research questions I’m asking.

I think this is the key niche for preprints. Early career researchers (ECRs) probably benefit from them more than established researchers. ECRs need funding and support to establish themselves, and the only way to get that funding is to prove your ability to do the research. Peer review can take a long time, not because of quality of research, but because of opinions and biases of reviewers and editors. This isn’t a new thing. But, in this era of acceleration, there can be huge consequences when an ECR moves into new research territory. As a researcher, you are identified on your publication record, so if your previous work doesn’t exactly match your proposed work, you can be judged as lacking the skills needed to do the project.

This is why I decided to post my paper as a preprint. However, there is a big difference between conceptual and data papers. One of the most serious problems with preprints is their availability to everyone, which allows some media to promote ‘evidence’ from data papers that have not been peer reviewed.

I was comfortable posting my preprint because it was a conceptual paper, with no data, on using network analysis to analyse ecosystem services; hardly front page news material.

I’m still not sold on preprints and I won’t be preprinting all my papers. But I can see the benefits of preprints in some contexts and I’ll encourage my students and postdocs to post preprints when they need to. In the meantime, let’s take peer review a bit more seriously – it’s a community service, not a gatekeeping exercise.

© Manu Saunders 2019

7 thoughts on “Why I posted my first preprint

  1. Marco Mello March 10, 2019 / 12:17 AM

    Congrats! Preprints are not meant to save peer review, but to add one more step to the publishing process, which brings many benefits to the system. Naturally, there are also downsides to them. But everything has a yin/yang duality, don’t they? Some years ago I’ve also posted about preprints on my blog. It’s in Portuguese, but the automatic translation tool does a god job: https://marcoarmello.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/preprint/.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. standingoutinmyfield March 11, 2019 / 12:54 AM

    My first conceptual paper took 7 years to get published and was rejected from 10 different journals haha (the final, published version is obviously far superior to the first submission, but it was a painful process)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. cinnabarreflections March 12, 2019 / 1:56 AM

    You are illustrating one of the enigmas of science, I think. Reviewers tend to be ultra-conservative and slow to accept anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their own world view. That’s why grant writing becomes an exercise in writing what reviewers want to read rather than going out on a limb with radical new ideas. Anyway, I love this part: ” (put your Table 1 in, put your Table 1 out, put your Table 1 in and shake it all about!)”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Martin Brummell March 12, 2019 / 8:20 AM

    Fair warning: I’m stealing that “Table 1 in / out / shake” part.
    And congratulations on submitting the DECRA! Awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James Van Dyke April 7, 2019 / 11:42 AM

    I came here after our tweets today.

    Conceptual papers are tricky, but my approach has been to publish them either in 1) relatively low-impact journals, and/or 2) in invited reviews. It also helps to email an editor in advance with the idea and see if they are willing to consider it. This may sound a bit like a defeatist approach, but it has had 3 major benefits;

    First, once the paper is published, you can then cite it in grant proposals and subsequent papers. The “idea” is already “out”, and it doesn’t necessarily matter to a journal or grant agency where it was published (too much). In ROPE, you can explain why it is important/impactful.

    Second, once the idea/paper is out, it’s much easier to publish a second paper building on it in a higher-impact journal, and point to the previous citation to indicate “see, this idea was good enough for peer reviewers once, and this second paper broadens it even further”.

    Third- from an impact standpoint, you can still get heaps of citations in a low-impact journal, and you can use that as an argument in promotions, etc. One of my conceptual papers like this (invited as part of a whole issue critiquing/rebutting another paper from a different journal) is my fastest-cited paper, and is the 5th-most cited paper in that journal over the past six years. You do have to have a well-reasoned response to critiques that something like this is “aiming too low”*. The important thing is that we aren’t soothsayers, so we cannot know how a paper will be received once it is published, no matter where we send it. If I’d sent this paper to a different journal it is just as likely to disappear as it is to be highly cited. That it is having an impact is THE important result, and I argue it is raising the bar for the journal.

    *Generally, people who say this are nitpickers looking for any reason to devalue your work, and should not be trusted anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 7, 2019 / 2:15 PM

      Thanks, good points. I generally agree with the ‘publish it anywhere decent’ mantra, although it doesn’t hurt to aim high first in case you get lucky. And I personally haven’t had luck with your second point, purely because conceptual papers are so subjective when it comes to review, regardless of whether you’ve published something before (see my other blog post on why it’s so hard to publish conceptual papers!). Would be interesting to see if these issues are different for data papers


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