Firsts: publishing a preprint before submitting the paper

Although I’ve been using preprints since 2013, recently I had a new kind of experience with preprints. Whereas before I would post the preprint upon submitting it to a journal, for the first time I decoupled the two events, and submitted the preprint several months ahead. In this post I reflect on this experience. 

Why

My choice was initially practically motivated. The idea for the paper was born in 2016, but since moving to a new position, I’ve been too overwhelmed to do any writing, so at the start of 2018 the paper – a survey of a magnitude I haven’t attempted before – was far from finished. I wanted a deadline, but I still wanted to be able to update the paper if needed. So a preprint seemed exactly what I needed! 

Timeline

I set the deadline to April 2018 and for the next weeks, worked towards getting the draft to a readable shape.  In April I submitted the preprint to arXiV. Differently from submitting journal-ready preprints, this time I put a piece of text inside the preprint, saying it is not the final version and I was happy to receive suggestions. At the same time, I emailed a few people with the URL asking for comments, and I asked for feedback on Twitter. This felt scary to do – I don’t think I felt as nervous with any of my other papers.

Response

Despite my fears, the experience was positive – I got a lot of constructive feedback which helped me to improve the paper. So in September 2018, I submitted the updated preprint to a journal. In the cover letter, I mentioned the Altmetric statistics of the preprint (I later discovered this is sometimes frowned upon).

Next to the traditional list of suggested reviewers, I also provided several names of people who I had no conflict of interest with, but who had commented on the preprint on their own. I figured that, since they had already read the preprint, they might be willing reviewers. Of course I disclosed this in the letter. 

Publication

The reviews came in about 8 weeks later – an absolute record for me, as during my PhD, regularly waited 6 to 9 months for reviews. The reviewers were constructive, and suggested a coufple of revisions. After revising, the paper was accepted in January 2019 – by that time already gathering a few citations and benefitting from the preprint bump

Verdict

Given this experience, I would definitely post a preprint online without submitting it to a journal first, and not necessarily because of more citations. I realized that me feeling worried about it is a good thing. I could be sure the paper would be seen by a larger group of people, who had an incentive to comment, since they could still influence the paper. This is different from convincing a few reviewers, and then maybe not having the paper noticed afterwards.

Since this paper, I have also been part of another paper that used the same strategy (and is currently under review), and I noticed other preprints putting similar “please email us” messages on the front page. It seems there is a need for interacting with preprints differently – I’m looking forward to what different initiatives like overlay journals will bring.

2 thoughts on “Firsts: publishing a preprint before submitting the paper”

  1. I’ve only done this once before, and it was for a paper in the same position: it needed some work before I finally submitted it but I wasn’t in a place to be working on it and getting it submitted. I also sent it to various people asking for feedback, and except for a few minor comments from a few people I did not receive much substantive feedback. Not a surprise that the paper was an R&R for that reason. But I’m still pretty happy with the process and will continue to do this for papers I’m not quite ready to submit for publication.

    Although, I’m curious why people said sharing altmetric scores could be frowned upon. Does this include download numbers? I included them to indicate that there’s a high level of interest in this paper and I think wrote something about how I thought this paper would be popular among readers for this reason, but would benefit from the peer reviewed process, etc. Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Great to hear that it worked for you! I think it is common to get an R&R, even if you had done more changes 🙂 Mine was an R&R as well, but the revisions were quite reasonable.

      The frowned upon part was part of a general thread about writing cover letters and how it’s a process that’s taken advantage of by people who know exactly what to say (such as include Altmetrics). I can’t find the thread anymore as I drafted this post a few months ago 🙂

      Reply

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