Phase II of the NIH Policy on Preprints: Implications for Scholarly Publishing
Preprints of scholarly research articles have been around since at least the 1960s and were originally actually printed. Now, preprints are versions of scientific articles that are posted to public servers prior to undergoing a peer review process. The availability of preprints became more prevalent in 2017 with the introduction of new preprint servers and new submission policies by publishers and funders. Their popularity has continued to increase, and they have become an important aspect of academic publishing.
During the covid pandemic, the immediate sharing of research became much more important, and major funders encouraged researchers to publish their work initially as preprints. This openness undoubtedly led to the quicker development of treatments and policies; however, some researchers are concerned that preprints are being rushed to publication without any vetting.
NIH Preprint Policy
On December 14, 2022, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) announced plans to extend the NIH preprint pilot to cover non-covid-related preprints. Phase II launches in January 2023 and includes all preprints that acknowledge direct NIH support or have an NIH-affiliated author and are posted on an eligible preprint server on or after January 1, 2023. Preprints that meet these criteria are made discoverable in PubMed Central (PMC) and receive a citation in PubMed.
Phase I of the NIH preprint pilot was initiated in June 2020 and focused on increasing the discoverability of covid-related research. According to the NLM, from June 2020 to June 2022, more than 3,300 preprints were indexed in PMC and PubMed. In Phase II, the NLM will continue to add eligible preprints to PMC on a weekly basis.
An evaluation of Phase I of the NIH Preprint Policy posted as a preprint on bioRxiv found that the addition of these NIH-supported preprints was able to accelerate the dissemination of research without reducing the trust users had in NLM literature services. In addition, the study’s authors indicated that nearly 25% of the preprints posted under the NIH policy were not associated with a peer-review published journal article. Therefore, the policy has resulted in more research being available in a timelier manner.
Based on the limited reactions posted online and on Twitter about the Phase II extension, scientific researchers and publishers seem to not have any issues with the expansion. As some fields, such as physics, have been using preprints extensively for a long time and with the openness of the covid-related research, Phase II of the NIH Preprint Pilot may not seem to be a significant change.
According to an article in Science, “Preprints now represent 7% of all articles in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s PubMed database, up from 0.2% in 2015.” The main concern researchers have about preprints in general is the lack of any rigorous review. Although the preprint servers allow for the critique of papers, few reviews are posted. Only 5% of ~180,000 preprints posted on bioRxiv have comments from other researchers.
Implications for scholarly publishers and journals
In general, scholarly publishers and journals have encouraged the posting of preprints and only require that authors disclose where the preprint was posted and any changes made to the article prior to submission. Some journals require verification that the preprint was not previously peer reviewed.
The NIH preprint policy specifies that preprints must be posted on eligible servers to be included in PMC and PubMed. The eligible servers do not include journal-based preprint servers. This will affect where NIH-sponsored researchers chose to post their preprint research.
As part of the trend toward opening up access to scholarly research, the new NIH preprint policy extension will continue to put pressure on the traditional journal publishing model.
In announcing the new pilot phase, NLM stated that they “will monitor progress with the Phase 2 pilot to determine by the end of 2023 whether the success with preprints for COVID-19 translates to the broader scope of NIH-funded research and merits ongoing efforts.”