Are Preprint Servers a Threat to Quality Science or a Necessity During a Global Pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on preprint servers and the debate over whether they are a threat to quality science or a necessity. Preprint servers are online platforms where authors can post their research before it is published in a journal, allowing them to reach an audience more quickly and without peer review. This has created a debate over whether the lack of experts reviewing preprint papers raises questions about their quality, or whether attacking this publication process may incidentally support scientific elitism and even censorship.
In this blog post, we will explore the pros and cons of preprint servers, and consider the implications for quality science and public health during a global pandemic. We will look at the peer review process, the potential flaws in peer review, and the evidence that suggests underrepresented groups in the discipline are systematically disadvantaged by how we think about the journal hierarchy. We will also examine the controversy around preprints during COVID-19, and consider whether the public is served by tightened publication criteria.
The peer review process is the “gold standard” for scientific papers, and its absence is a key feature of arguments against preprint publications. But the potential flaws in peer review are well recognized, and studies have documented higher acceptance rates for manuscripts written by authors from English-speaking countries. Peer review also frequently misses major errors in submitted papers, and industry-driven papers have occluded the truth about treatments.
Preprints allow authors to reach an audience more quickly, without peer review, and thus can be more “democratic.” However, during COVID-19, those very attributes have sometimes made preprints the “bad guys.” Preprint servers are tightening their exclusion data because of disinformation fears, and some have argued that preprints could lead to a further democratization of expert authority, encouraging forms of “lay expertise.”
At the same time, many have argued that the lack of experts reviewing preprint papers raises questions about their quality, and that radically divergent science can be mislabelled because it is particularly groundbreaking. It is also true that junk science can further confuse public opinion. But that point seems less pertinent when public distrust appears heightened, rather than reduced, by efforts to enforce scientific hegemony.
So, are preprint servers a threat to quality science or a necessity during a global pandemic? The answer is complicated, and this blog post has explored the pros and cons of preprint servers, and considered the implications for quality science and public health during a global pandemic. Ultimately, it is up to readers to decide whether preprints are a valuable tool or a potential threat to quality science, and whether the public is served by tightened publication criteria.