Should biologists cite preprints? (yes)

Yes, says Jon Tennant – scholars should cite literature based on relevance and quality, not just because it has been published in a journal.

I have a new editorial out in The Biologist, the magazine published by The Royal Society of Biology, based on a previous discussion on this blog. It’s freely available online here, and the pretty PDF here. Here’s the full text too below. If you have any questions, comments, queries, please do feel free to discuss further!


In 1990 the ambitious CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee built the World Wide Web to help researchers share information rapidly.

Just a few months later, arXiv (pronounced ‘archive’) was developed as a centralised web-based network for the maths, computer science and physics communities. Nearly 30 years on more than 8,000 ‘preprints’ – academic articles that have not yet been formally peer reviewed – are submitted to arXiv every month.




In the life sciences around 1,000 papers are submitted as preprints every month. Several developments have catalysed the use of preprints in the biosciences, including bioRxiv, an arXiv mimic, and the community-led ASAPbio initiative that encourages the productive use of preprints. Large research bodies including the NIH, MRC and BBSRC now both allow and encourage the use of preprints in grant submissions.

In spite of this growth there is still resistance to preprints. One major barrier is the question of their citation as scholarly works. Some researchers have claimed that it constitutes bad scholarship and that preprints, due to their preliminary nature, are no different to other ‘grey literature’, such as non-peer-reviewed reports, articles, correspondence etc.

This is part of our academic culture where typically only research that has been explicitly peer reviewed, and therefore has a stamp of certification, is cited.

This is actually quite different from other fields. According to Google Scholar, four of the most highly cited ‘journals’ of all time in maths and physics are arXiv subsections. In these communities, a preprint is considered to be an establishment of priority for that research, a starting point for further discussion or investigation. In the life sciences, preprints have not yet gained this status.

Attempts to close this value gap have largely focused on making preprints more citable from a technical perspective – for example, provision of better metadata, persistent identifiers (DOIs), and even the look and feel of a traditional journal article. However, researchers don’t avoid citing preprints because it’s technically difficult. They don’t cite them because they are not deemed worthy of citation.

What researchers rely on are journals (and peer review) to take on the responsibility of telling them what is citable. Preprints tell us that the responsibility of the citation lies with the citer, and for some researchers this is scary. However, evaluating the quality and context of research is part of our job.

There are good and bad preprints, just as there are good and bad papers. As research communities we should not be using journals as an excuse to absolve ourselves of the ability to think critically.

I recently established paleorXiv, a community-led preprint server for palaeontology research. It didn’t take long for this to spark a lot of discussion, and I even received an email from a senior researcher emphasising fears that it might be used by creationists to ‘get one over’ on real science. Yikes.

We are still just at the beginning, and there is a long way to go. The biosciences are incredibly diverse, with many subdisciplines – each with its own set of community norms and values. It is understandable that a ‘one size fits all’ model for preprints will never work across the entire life sciences.

For paleorXiv, we decided to create community-oriented submission guidelines to engage with researchers and help address many of their concerns, particularly regarding preprint citations. To me, the most important is: “Please exercise the same care and judgement you would use for any research output when it comes to the citation and re-use of preprints.” That’s just good scholarly practice.

5 thoughts on “Should biologists cite preprints? (yes)

  1. As we’ve discussed before, taxonomic preprints with new nomenclatural acts are potentially problematic due to the potential for conflicting versions of taxonomy in preprints versus postprints, and I would not cite them.

    The ICZN say “posting electronic preprints is not good practice for nomenclatural works.” Some preprint servers appear to agree. PeerJ Preprints say “PeerJ Preprints should not be used to name or propose new nomenclatural acts (as per the policies which have been put in place by organizations such as the ICZN and ICN). Instead these articles should be submitted to the peer-reviewed PeerJ journal.” Your own PaleorXiv has more relaxed draft guidelines, which focus on redacting taxonomic acts rather than not posting the preprint at all.

    By contrast, bioRxiv guidelines state nothing about taxonomy at all, and it is quite easy to find examples of new nomenclatural acts published as preprints by searching for e.g. “sp. nov.”

    Surprisingly, this issue seems to have received little attention in the taxonomic community as far as I am aware – I have yet to track down any opinion pieces, commentaries, blog posts etc. dealing with it.

    1. Ah yeah, you’re right of course. This is important, but I think the issue can be avoided by simply avoiding preprints with taxonomic content, or redacting it like we will do at paleorXiv. It’s a shame biorXiv hasn’t considered this angle, and I wonder why they haven’t. The issue, as you outline, is quite clear to me (and I hope to others!), and either the paleorXiv or PeerJ preprint solution seems to resolve it nicely. Actually, I wonder then if it’s worth assembling a few people together to write such an opinion piece for a taxonomy-focused journal?

      1. I think an opinion piece that carefully thinks through the issues and makes recommendations would be helpful. To reach the taxonomic community it would need to be published somewhere like Zootaxa. I could contribute to such an article but not lead it due to other time commitments.

        This may also by the way be a legitimate reason for certain taxonomy-focused journals refusing to consider papers that have been posted as preprints. That appears to be the case for Zootaxa.

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