Preprints are versions of scholarly manuscripts that are shared online before they have been formally peer-reviewed. Preprints are increasingly used across multiple scholarly disciplines from mathematics and computer science to the life sciences and medical research. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic increased attention on and engagement with preprints, as they provided a means for research to be shared and accessed more rapidly across a wide audience.

Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) is dedicated to supporting the financing and resourcing of open infrastructure. In exploring preprint services and infrastructure as a case study for how we can support critical research infrastructure, we conducted this preliminary investigation to ask: what is the current situation with preprints and open infrastructure for them, and how could IOI pursue work to further investment and sustain activities in this space?

Using desk research and semi-structured interviews with nine participants covering a range of stakeholders in the preprint space, we gathered information on the value of preprints and the successes and weaknesses in the overall preprints services ecosystems. Based on these findings, we built a set of recommendations on how funders and other stakeholders should prioritize investment to move towards a more robust, reliable, and viable infrastructure of open preprint services.

Considering the value of preprints to science and scholarship, we found that they provide more rapid access to research outputs and more equitable participation in scholarship. However, we also found that experimentation with preprint review and curation is at an early stage. While the COVID-19 pandemic spurred community efforts to triage and review preprints, it also exposed some of the dangers of information being shared without undergoing preliminary verification and validation.

The strengths of the preprints ecosystem include the strong brand recognition developed by arXiv, bioRxiv, and medRxiv and the existence of several open infrastructure options for hosting and interacting with preprints. We also heard the inclusion of preprints in scholarly infrastructure services, such as Crossref and other indexing services, enables a seamless experience for researchers and readers to receive acknowledgement for works submitted as preprints prior to traditional publication. We heard that preprints can be a valuable space for experimenting with and sharing additional research artefacts that would normally be shared in a typical journal article, increasing the information available to fellow researchers beyond what’s typically included in an accepted research piece. Finally, it is evident there remains a strong network of people and organizations committed to supporting open infrastructure for preprints that can and should be broadened in order to realize a viable and robust infrastructure of open services for research.

However, we are concerned that the preprints ecosystem is not yet financially sustainable, with services dependent on substantial voluntary and in-kind contributions that aren’t fully accounted for in financial plans and are not reliable for long-term strategic planning. The majority of preprints are not shared using open infrastructure. Overall, we find the potential of preprints in open scholarly communication is not yet fully realized and is at risk from competition with for-profit, commercial, and other proprietary solutions. While developments in the existing journal publishing ecosystem make it possible to more rapidly share work, we risk losing the opportunity for this activity to be done on community-governed infrastructure built on open source tools that is transparent and accountable to its stakeholders.

To address these challenges and concerns, we recommend work to:

  1. Raise awareness of the potential benefits and drawbacks of using existing open services for preprints as shared infrastructure.
  2. Support research and development (and testing) of business models that could work at a larger scale.
  3. Advocate for increased investment in projects and initiatives that support preprints to enable more inclusive and equitable participation in science and scholarship.

We would like to thank all interview participants for sharing their experiences and insights with us: Denis Bourguet, PeerCommunityIn; Dasapta Erwin Irawan, RINarxiv and Lecturer at Institut Teknologi Bandung; Juan Pablo Alperin, Public Knowledge Project; Damian Pattinson, eLife; Nici Pfeiffer, Center for Open Science; Jessica Polka, ASAPbio; Iratxe Puebla, ASAPbio; Gabe Stein, Knowledge Futures Group; and Carly Strasser, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as well as support from staff at the Simons Foundation who also provided important insights.

We would also like to thank Oya Rieger, Bianca Kramer, Abel Packer, Michele Avissar-Whiting and interview participants for providing early feedback on this work. Support for this work comes from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing & Peter Baldwin, and the Mellon Foundation, in addition to IOI’s Founding Circle supporters. More information can be found on our website.

We welcome all questions, comments, and feedback on this work – please email us at research [at] investinopen [dot] org.

Social media image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Posted by Naomi Penfold