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.

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