Arguing the Case for Preprints

This is Peer Review Week 2020 as part of which I am participating tomorrow afternoon (Irish Time) in a live panel discussion/webinar called Increasing transparency and trust in preprints: Steps journals can take.

Working in a field like astrophysics, where the use of preprints as a means of disseminating information and ideas is well established, I’m always surprised that some people working in other disciplines don’t really approve of them at all. See for example, this Twitter thread. Still, even in the biosciences, preprints have their advocates and there are signs that attitudes may be changing.

That is not to say that things aren’t changing in astrophysics too. One of the interesting astronomical curiosities I’ve acquired over the years is a preprint of the classic work of Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle in 1957 (a paper usually referred to as B2FH after the initials of its authors). It’s such an important contribution, in fact, that it has its own wikipedia page.

Younger readers will probably not realize that preprints were not always produced in the electronic form they are today. We all used to make large numbers of these and post them at great expense to (potentially) interested colleagues before publication in order to get comments. That was extremely useful because a paper could take over a year to be published after being refereed for a journal: that’s too long a timescale when a PhD or PDRA position is only a few years in duration. The first papers I was given to read as a new graduate student in 1985 were all preprints that were not published until well into the following year. In some cases I had more or less figured out what they were about by the time they appeared in a journal!

The B2FH paper was published in 1957 but the practice of circulating preprints persisted well into the 1990s. Usually these were produced by institutions with a distinctive design, logo, etc which gave them a professional look, which made it easier to distinguish `serious’ papers from crank material (which was also in circulation). This also suggested that some internal refereeing inside an institution had taken place before an “official” preprint was produced and this lending it an air of trustworthiness. Smaller institutions couldn’t afford all this, so were somewhat excluded from the preprint business.

With the arrival of the arXiv the practice of circulating hard copies of preprints in astrophysics gradually died out, to be replaced by ever-increasing numbers of electronic articles. The arXiv does have some gatekeeping – in the sense there are some controls on who can deposit a preprint there – but it is far easier to circulate a preprint now than it was.

It is still the case that big institutions and collaborations insist on quite strict internal refereeing before publishing a preprint – and some even insist on waiting for a paper to be accepted by a journal before adding it to the arXiv – but there’s no denying that among the wheat there is quite a lot of chaff, some of which attracts media coverage that it does not deserve. It must be admittted, however, that the same can be said of some papers that have passed peer review and appeared in high-profile journals! No system that is operated by human beings will ever be flawless, and peer review is no different.

Nowadays, in astrophysics, the single most important point of access to scientific literature is through the arXiv, which is why the Open Journal of Astrophysics was set up as an overlay journal to provide a level of rigorous peer review for preprints, not only to provide a sort of quality mark but also to improve the paper through the editorial process.

As for increasing transparency and trust in preprints, I think I’ll save some suggestions for tomorrow’s webinar. A good start, however, would be for journals to admit their own limitations and start helping rather than hindering the dissemination of information and ideas.

18 Responses to “Arguing the Case for Preprints”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    The problem with arXiv is that their “gatekeeping” (which can include rejecting papers even if they have appeared in respected journals) is intransparent and that the author is usually not even told the reason if a paper is reclassified or rejected. By relying too much on arXiv, you beome its slave. Yes, there is an appeals process, but it is just as intransparent and ineffective and even if successful, a reclassified paper would not appear in the list of recent papers (emailed and on the website) which defeats much (for me, all) of the purpose for being on arXiv at all.

    Let’s face it: most people are not even willing to even discuss the matter in public for fear of getting band from arXiv. With great power should come great responsibility, but that is not the case with arXiv.

    Of course arXiv should keep out crackpots and so on. But when they make a decision which is obviously wrong, the author has to live with it. Even high-profile witnesses arguing his case with arXiv don’t help.

    My prediction: the more the problems with arXiv become known (stay tuned), the more people will realize that overlay journals which are dependent on arXiv are not a serious alternative to traditional journals. Yes, traditional journals have their problems, but they also have their advantages. They are also far from the the same, with policies ranging from the benign to the ridiculous.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      band —> banned

    • Is this all because a paper of yours was reclassified?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Of course.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        But that happened only recently. The issues have been around for years or even decades, and I, as one of the few, had mentioned them even before I personally had any problems. That’s part of the problem: people who personally have no difficulties assume that everything is OK or, at best, where there is smoke there must be fire.

        Of course, the consequences for my personal life are, in the grand scheme of things, small, which is why I am hesitant to quote Martin Niemöller. 😐

        This isn’t really the place to discuss this in detail, but those interested in the gory details can contact me offline. Based on the number who do, I can gauge how aware the community is of the issues and/or how seriously it takes them.

        I do feel obliged—not for myself (it probably makes matters worse for me) but for the benefit of others—to disagree whenever I get the impression (here or elsewhere) that everything at arXiv is just hunky dory. There are two possibilities (apart from contraproductive ones): ignore the issues or somehow constructively contribute to getting them resolved.

        I’ve discussed these issues with several colleagues. There is a real fear that discussing them in public can lead to retribution from arXiv, so most choose not to. I can understand that in the case of people without permanent jobs whose future career might be dependent on arXiv, but not in the case of those with permanent jobs. Yes, not being visible on arXiv will have consequences for you, but not nearly as dire, and on balance one should take them in stride in support of the greater goal of fixing obvious problems.

      • Honestly, you make it sound like the arXiv is run by the Mafia.

        I have no idea what issues you are referring to, other than the trivial one of you yourself having a paper moved to another classification.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “I have no idea what issues you are referring to”

        I sent you an email on 23 April 2020. If it didn’t arrive, there is probably a problem at your end, as my system sends and receives probably hundreds of emails per day and has been running stably for twenty years. If you didn’t feel that my message was even worth replying to (whatever the response would have been), then that demonstrates the problem.

        “other than the trivial one of you yourself having a paper moved to another classification.”

        What is trivial about it?

        Many (most?) colleagues reply on the abstract mailings or the “recent” list on the arXiv webpage to see what new papers there are in the field. If a paper is in the wrong category, it won’t be seen. For me, the only reason to put a paper on arXiv is the increased visibility. (I have the stamp of approval from a respected journal, I can distribute free copies via my personal and/or an institutional webserver, and those looking for free versions via ADS links can follow author-supplied links to places other than arXiv or the journal (which might or might not offer a free version, and that might change with time, but as a matter of principle I publish only with journals which allow me to freely distribute (something equivalent to) the final version).)

        So not appearing in astro-ph is trivial? Really?

        What many are not aware of: If arXiv reclassifies a paper, the author is not informed (there isn’t even an automatic email), much less consulted. The author then has no choice but to let the paper appear in the category chosen by arXiv. (Even if the category is corrected later via a successful appeal, then it won’t appear in the list of “new” papers, and so will be missed, so that doesn’t retroactively correct the real problem, which is lack of visibility.)

        If you think that that is trivial, then I expect to see all of your future publications in cosmology/astrophysics/astronomy in an arXiv category other than astro-ph (you can at least try to choose one which arXiv will accept).

        To be sure, I did delete my reclassified paper from arXiv; that is (or at least was) technically possible and colleagues suggested that I do so. I was later informed in no uncertain terms that that is against the rules. Doing so again would surely get be banned for life. (arXiv even painted things such that allowing me to do so—after I had done it—was an act of particular benevolence on their part.)

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        get be banned —> get me banned

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “Honestly, you make it sound like the arXiv is run by the Mafia. “

        All of my claims are demonstrably true, so if that is the conclusion you draw, so be it.

      • How about demonstrating them then?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “How about demonstrating them then?”

        Stay tuned.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Note that there are several aspects: availability of papers for free to anyone, availability of preprints (i.e. preliminary versions of papers), and a one-stop shop for being informed of new publications.

    Note also that not all papers are at arXiv (for various reasons), that of the papers at arXiv not always is the final version available (again, for various reasons), and even if it is that might not be clear (again, several potential reasons).

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      There are of course various reasons why not everything is at arXiv. If something is there, why not the final version? In some cases, laziness. In others, the journal does not allowed the final version to be on arXiv. Even if the final version is there, that is not always clear. Why not? Again, laziness is a possibility, but another is that the journal doesn’t allow the final version to be on arXiv, so the author replaces his submission with the final version but (nudge nudge, wink wink) doesn’t mention the fact publicly.

      It would be useful if arXiv required all submissions to be replaced with the final version within a reasonable time, but they are not interested in doing so.

      • Well, it is a *preprint* server…

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        I don’t see any tongue-in-cheek smiley. 😐

        Seriously, your whole point is that traditional journals should now be obsolete because of arXiv. The truth is, that is far from the case. Also, the false dichotomy arXiv vs. absurdly overpriced journals is, well, false.

      • It is a false dichotomy, which is why I never asserted it. My general argument made in other posts – not the point I was making in this article – is that traditional journals have been made obsolete because of digital publication technology. The arXiv is by no means perfect – not surprisingly because it is run on a shoestring – but demonstrates a way forward for some disciplines.

  3. In high energy physics, this is definitely true. everyone only looks at arxiv. As I mentioned earlier, people like Witten and Maldacena motly post on arxiv and its the journal editors who contact them to request them to publish their papers to their journal

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Yes, but they are Witten and Maldacena. Allegedly Queen Elizabeth II never carries money with her, but I don’t see that as a valid role model for myself. 🙂

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