By Iratxe Puebla, Facilitation and Integrity Officer, COPE
The use of preprints in the life sciences has increased over recent years and has sparked a number of conversations about their use, as well as their potential benefits and challenges. It is fair to say that there are differing views around preprints; while some communities use them regularly as part of their research, others have voiced concerns about the potential risks of posting research publicly prior to the validation offered by the peer-review process. As the number of preprint platforms has grown and the use of preprints has become more common in some research communities, questions have arisen about standards and best practices for using preprints for the dissemination of research.
A number of definitions have been put forward to describe preprints, but generally, a preprint is a scholarly document posted by the author in an open platform, typically before submission for journal peer review and publication . A majority of papers posted as preprints are then submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals  and thus, journal editors can find themselves facing a number of questions: Should the journal accept submissions that have been posted as preprints? Is the preprint considered a prior ‘publication’? How does the availability of a preprint impact the eventual license or copyright applying to the journal article?
The need for a conversation about preprints and ethical publishing practice – COPE Discussion document
COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) has discussed these and other considerations in a COPE Discussion document on preprints  posted in 2018. COPE was established up over 20 years ago with a mission to promote a better understanding of publication ethics and provide education and support for editors, publishers, and other interested parties as they handle matters related to publication practice and integrity. In support of these goals, COPE regularly develops resources for its members and encourages discussion around emerging areas of publication ethics, via Forums, seminars and discussion documents.
The COPE Discussion document on preprints aimed to provide an overview of the topic and the potential benefits and challenges that preprints pose, and it outlined an initial set of recommendations for authors, editors, publishers and preprint platforms. One of COPE’s guiding principles has always been transparency, and with this in mind, many of the recommendations outlined were anchored around the importance of articulating editorial policies (in the case of journals) and procedures (in the case of preprint platforms) that would make expectations clear for authors, editors and readers.
A revision to the COPE Discussion document on preprints
We hoped that the COPE Discussion document on preprints would encourage conversation, and we indeed received great feedback not only from COPE members but also from representatives of preprint platforms. In response, COPE revised the document. In particular, the revision largely focuses on two key areas:
Screening: Different preprint platforms operate different processes for screening manuscripts prior to posting, and it is important to articulate clearly and publicly the platform’s practices so that expectations are clear for both authors and readers. While the scope of the screening may vary depending on the subject area and the type of manuscript involved, based on the feedback received, there should be a minimum set of items screened, including checks for non-scholarly material, relevance, offensive content, text overlap, and potential risks associated with content with clinical, public health or environmental implications.
Version stability and continuity: A framework that ensures continuity and archiving of documents posted as a preprint is also encouraged. In the interest of transparency, any changes to the preprint record after it is posted should be clearly designated, such as if a revised version is posted. Having articulated policies around the practice for notifications of changes to the preprint, including preprint removal, should help ensure consistency in handling and clarity for those who engage with preprints.
Best practices for preprints? A conversation that needs to continue
The revised discussion document on preprints will soon be available on the COPE website, and we hope it will help establish best practice guidelines and support multiple communities with different views and practices around preprints.
Similar to the way research and publishing culture can differ from one discipline to another, opinions and approaches to preprints do – and will likely continue to – vary across disciplines. Guidelines that advocate for responsible use of preprints while accounting for discipline-specific needs help support both authors and editors. As with other aspects of the research and publication process, transparency and openness will continue to be pillars upon which to build best practice standards for preprints.
In an ever-changing landscape, practice and expectations about preprints across communities may continue to evolve, so COPE very much welcomes further feedback about this discussion document and on other ways COPE can support its members.
Acknowledgements: COPE Executive Officer Natalie Ridgeway and COPE Council members Rachel Shafer and Heather Tierney provided input and suggestions for this blog post. Rachel Shafer and Heather Tierney are co-authors of the COPE Discussion document on preprints.
1.Tennant, J., Bauin, S., James, S., & Kant, J. (2018, May 17). The evolving preprint landscape: Introductory report for the Knowledge Exchange working group on preprints. https://doi.org/10.31222/osf.io/796tu
2. Abdill RJ, Blekhman R. Tracking the popularity and outcomes of all bioRxiv preprints. eLife. 2019; 8:e45133.
3. COPE Discussion document on preprints: https://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/COPE_Preprints_Mar18.pdf