The Importance of Appropriately Citing and Identifying Preprints

As reported in a previous blog post, preprint servers allow researchers to share scientific manuscripts via an online, public repository before peer review. Preprints have played an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing health care professionals and researchers to rapidly disseminate information and data. According to a Nature analysis, more than 30,000 of the COVID-19–related articles published in 2020 were preprints.

However, some preprint publication and citation patterns are potentially harmful to the integrity of scholarly publishing. This post from the Scholarly Kitchen blog identifies some of the issues.

1. Preprint servers do not always identify their content as not peer-reviewed.

Preprint servers are inconsistent about identifying content as not having been peer reviewed. For example, the following statement appears at the top of most medRxiv and bioRxiv COVID-19 preprint pages:

bioRxiv is receiving many new papers on coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.

On the other hand, MindRxiv does not indicate that hosted content has not been peer reviewed. A note at the site states only, “MindRxiv is a service provided by the Mind & Life Institute, and is not affiliated with other preprint servers.”

2. Recommended citations on preprint servers do not indicate that the citation is a preprint.

Similar to online journals, many preprint servers provide recommended citations in various reference formats, but some formats do not identify the article as a preprint. For example, OSF Preprints gives the following APA citation suggestion for this article:

Beck, J., Ferguson, C. A., Funk, K., Hanson, B., Harrison, M., Ide-Smith, M. B., … Swaminathan, S. (2020, July 21). Building trust in preprints: recommendations for servers and other stakeholders.

The citation does not indicate that the article is a preprint published without peer review.

3. Preprint citations provided by authors often do not include a DOI.

Most journal articles are assigned digital object identifiers (DOIs), and most preprint articles are assigned DOIs as well. Often, however, authors do not include DOIs in the citations of preprints in their reference lists. Results from a random sample of preprint citations found in preprints posted to a various servers over 6 months showed that fewer than half included a DOI. Including a DOI is essential to enable readers to locate the authoritative copy of the preprint.

The Ochsner Journal follows the guidance in the 11th edition of the American Medical Association Manual of Style for citing preprint manuscripts in reference lists, clearly stating that the article is a preprint and including a DOI for accessibility:

Bloss CS, Wineinger NE, Peters M, et al. A prospective randomized trial examining health care utilization in individuals using multiple smartphone-enabled biosensors. bioRxiv. Preprint posted online October 28, 2015. doi: 10.1101/029983

Preprints are a useful way to quickly release important data. However, to maintain integrity in scholarly publishing, these manuscripts must be explicitly identified as not having been peer reviewed, authors should provide DOIs for preprints in their reference lists if DOIs are available, and readers must interpret the data in preprint articles with caution.