Preprints: Catalysts in the publishing revolution

On this 'landscaping article' the authors explore the history of preprints in the life sciences, investigate how the fields of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are using preprints now, and place those fields in the context of the wider bioRxiv data.
Preprints: Catalysts in the publishing revolution

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This post was authored by Sandra Franco-Iborra (ASAPbio Community Lead), Pablo Ranea-Robles (Postdoctoral Fellow, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen), Lonni Besancon (Assistant Professor, Linköping University), Rinalda Proko (Postdoctoral Associate at Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology at UMass Chan Medical School) & Jonathon Alexis Coates (Associate Director, ASAPbio).


Scientific publishing is experiencing a reckoning; scientists are resigning across a wide range of editorial boards, the dominance of traditional publishers has been successfully challenged, open access has revolutionized publishers’ business models and preprints are on the rise. Preprints (manuscripts shared prior to journal-organised peer review) offer an opportunity to transform scholarly communication into a system that places science and society first in addition to alleviating many of the issues we currently face. 

Brief history of preprints in the life sciences

The origins of preprinting date back to the 1960s with the biology-focussed NIH information exchange groups (IEGs). Indeed some of these initial IEGs were focussed on Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, placing these fields at the very earliest stages of preprinting within the life sciences. However, this initiative faced opposition from publishers and scientific societies who effectively ended the IEGs by 1969. In 1991, arXiv launched and the physics community rapidly adopted preprinting. It was not until the launch of bioRxiv in 2013 that biology began to accept preprints. More recently, some funders such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have begun to mandate preprints for their grantees. We’ve also witnessed government declarations that support a not-for-profit, no cost to authors or readers system of academic publishing; effectively, this is a system that has preprints at its core. In 2023, there were over 750,000 life science preprints (Fig 1A), representing approximately 12% of the literature (Fig 1B). Over 220,000 of these preprints are hosted on bioRxiv (Fig 1C). Cumulatively, bioRxiv preprints have been downloaded over 150 million times since 2013 (Fig 1D). 

Fig 1. Preprints in the life sciences. A) Preprints indexed on Europe PMC. B) Preprints indexed on Europe PMC as a percentage of published articles on Europe PMC. C) Cumulative bioRxiv submissions since 2013. D) Cumulative PDF downloads for bioRxiv preprints. Thanks to Europe PMC for the code and data to produce panels A & B and Nicholas Fraser for the code used to produce panels C & D.

Preprints in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The first Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints appear in the year bioRxiv launched, 2013. However, it took a few years, until 2018, for these fields to begin adopting preprints more broadly. As of 2023, these two fields are very similar and represent slightly above the average number of preprints per field on bioRxiv. Biochemistry is the 10th largest field for number of preprints on bioRxiv (8595) with Molecular Biology being only slightly behind at the 13th largest field for preprints (8413) (Fig 2A).

Approximately ~70% of bioRxiv preprints are eventually published, with our data showing that at least 55% of Biochemistry and 52% of Molecular Biology preprints have been published in a journal by the end of 2023 (though this number is likely to be higher due to issues linking preprints to the published version) (Fig 2B). In the wider context of open science, the license choice made by authors determines how “open” a preprint is. Both Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints are largely posted with restrictive license choices, with only 17% of Biochemistry and 15% of Molecular Biology preprints having an open, CC-BY license (Fig 2C). Across bioRxiv, most preprints are posted as single versions, a trend that is also found for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints (Fig 2D). By not updating preprints, authors are losing out on a major benefit of iteratively updating their work. 

Fig 2. Characteristics of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints. A) Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints in bioRxiv over time. B) Percentage of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints published in a journal. C) Licences used for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints on bioRxiv. D) Number of versions for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology preprints on bioRxiv. Data downloaded using the bioRxiv API.

One difference between Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is found when looking at the numbers of preLights written. preLights (a preprint highlighting service from CoB) is a platform in which ECRs write news & views style articles of preprints. Here, Molecular biology has over 300 preLights whereas Biochemistry has a little under 190 preLight articles. This highlights the impact of community-led efforts around preprints and represents a great opportunity for the Biochemistry community to get more involved in highlighting interesting preprints from the field. 

The magic chemistry of preprints

Preprints serve multiple purposes. They help to shift the power dynamic in academic publishing, placing the power back in the hands of authors. This helps to accelerate the dissemination of scientific knowledge, free from the pressures and delays associated with publishing. The benefits of this open, accelerated system were highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when almost 40% of the initial COVID-19 related research was first shared as preprints, directly leading to changes in policy and potentially saving lives. Preprints can appear online within 48 hours of submission, compared to months and years under traditional publishing routes. This also proves particularly useful to publicly rebut published research and avoid the long delays of scientific corrections or the rather unused platforms for post-publication peer review.

Preprints also decouple the quality of research from metrics like journal impact factor, promoting fairer, better, evaluation. They also provide a platform for early-career researchers to showcase their work and gain recognition, fostering a more inclusive and diverse research landscape. Additionally, preprints can be used iteratively to share ongoing research and get feedback from the community. However, perhaps the most important benefit of preprints is that they offer a viable route towards meaningful change to scientific communication; one that is free from financial incentives and pressure and that is community-focussed. 

Preprints and Early Career Researchers

The group that most benefit from preprints are ECRs, who are most heavily impacted by traditional publishing issues such as long peer-review times that delay publication, high publishing fees that prevent publication and the hidden peer review process, excluding this group from vital training and contributions to academia. 

The acceleration of science enables ECRs to demonstrate evidence of their productivity in fellowship applications or when applying for jobs. Additionally, preprints enable the decoupling of publishing, peer review and curation. This enables ECRs to engage with peer review of preprints and develop their academic presence.  

For example, ASAPbio runs the crowd preprint review initiative, offering opportunities for ECRs to learn how to provide constructive criticism to improve the quality of manuscripts and enhance their writing skills, a crucial ability for academic advancement. eLife is another source providing opportunities for ECRs, especially in the fields of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, allowing  ECRs to be involved in the peer-reviewing process by increasing their visibility through a publicly accessible database with their names and expertise. The current eLife database has around 600 early-career reviewers, and their contributions are recognized by Publons and ORCID. These strategies have allowed young scientists in the field of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to accelerate the dissemination of their research, foster collaboration among scientists at different career levels, and emphasize the importance of the priority of discovery.

The best way to get started with preprints is to use them in your research by citing and reading them. Going further, you could also discuss preprints in your journal club – or even review them on platforms like PREreview or with support from ASAPbio. For ECRs, preLights is an excellent opportunity to take your first steps into commenting on preprints. When posting a preprint, utilize services like Review Commons (affiliated with FEBS journals) to expedite the peer review process. Societies are exceptionally well placed for preprint curation efforts, such as curating interesting preprints each month or by running their own virtual crowd preprint reviews for their field.

Ready to develop how you share your research, amplify your voice, and contribute to a more open, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology community? Grab our checklist (Box 1), explore resources, and join the preprint movement!

Box 1. How to get started with preprints?

  1. Read a preprint
  2. Discuss a preprint at your next journal club or join/create a preprint review journal club
  3. Review a preprint or write a preLights article to highlight a preprint
  4. Curate a list of preprints as an individual, group or society
  5. Post a preprint when going to conferences or before submitting your next manuscript to a journal

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