The preprint is defined as the submitted version of the manuscript before any peer review or copy editing changes have been made. However, surveys have shown that most scientists are still not taking advantage of this freedom (the exception being those in many areas of physics and mathematics who use arXiv).
So why is this? Clearly it’s not due to publisher restrictions (although it may be partly due to perception since many researchers seem to be unclear about exactly what publishers’ licenses do actually allow). Amongst the group who deposit preprints the least (those in the biological sciences) it is most likely a combination of a fear of being ‘scooped’, a lack of knowledge about repositories and insufficient awareness of the benefits of using them. Furthermore, whilst those in mathematics and physics have been using the arXiv since the 1990s, it’s only a little over two years ago that a dedicated preprint server was launched for biology (Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories’ bioRxiv).
But there is a reason why so many physical scientists have embraced arXiv (which now contains over a million articles and receives 9000 submissions per month). Depositing an early version of an article in a subject repository allows the researcher to time stamp their ideas or their discovery without having to wait for a journal’s processes. But more importantly, it exposes their thinking and arguments to their peer community to stimulate further research and generate valuable critical input. This community feedback is effectively a form of pre-publication peer review, but from a potentially much larger group of peers than the peer review performed by a journal and is what has made arXiv so attractive. What’s more, pre-publication outputs in recognised repositories can be cited in applications for jobs and grants, and in other research contexts.
We believe these advantages apply to all scientists and so we actively encourage all our authors to deposit early versions of their work in recognised subject repositories or preprint servers. A number of other publishers agree with us, so we have put together a joint statement and hope that other publishers will follow our lead.