Thoughts on MBE’s preprint citation policy

This guest post is by Graham Coop [@graham_coop] on the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution’s new preprint policy.

We had an interesting discussion via twitter on the potential reasons for MBE’s policy of not allowing a full citation of preprint articles. I thought I’d writeup some of my thoughts as shaped by that conversation.

Following on from this discussion, I thought I’d lay out some of the arguments that we discussed and my thoughts on these points. We do not know MBE’s reasoning on this, so I may have missed some obvious practical reason for this citation policy (if so, it would be great if it could be explained). Also I note that other journals may well have similar policies about preprint citations, so this is not an argument specifically against MBE. It is great that MBE is now allowing preprints, so this is a somewhat minor quibble compared to that step.

One of my main reasons for disliking this policy, other than it singling out preprints for special treatment, is that it may well disrupt how preprints accumulate citations (via tools like google scholar). I view one of the key advantages of preprints that they allow the early recognition and acknowledgement of good ideas (with bad ones being allowed to sink out of view). This is particularly important for young researchers, where preprints can potentially allow people on the job market to escape some of the randomness of how long the publication process takes. Allowing young scholars to have their work critiqued, and cited, early to me seems an important step in allowing young researchers to get a headstart in an increasingly difficult job market.

Potential arguments against treating preprint citations like any other citation:
1) Allowing full citation of preprints may lose the journal (or the authors) citations.

It is slightly hard to see the logic of (1). If I cite a preprint, which has yet to appear in a journal, then by its very nature the journal couldn’t possibly have benefited from that citation. I’m hardly going to delay my own submission/publication to wait for a paper to appear merely so I can cite it (unless I have some prior commitment to a colleague). The same argument seem to hold for the author, citations of the preprint are citations that you would not have received if you did not distribute the article early. Now, a fair concern is that journals/authors may lose citations of the published article, if after the article appears people accidentally cite the arXived paper instead of the final article. However, MBE’s system doesn’t avoid this problem, and it seems like it could be addressed simply by asking the authors to do a pubmed search for each arXived paper to avoid this oversight.

2) Another potential concern is that preprints are, by their nature, subject to change.

Preprints can be updated, so that information contained in them could change, or even be removed. However, preprint sites like arXiv (as well as peerJ and figshare) keep all previous versions of the paper, and these are clearly labeled and can be cited separately. So I can clearly indicate which version I am citing, and this citation is a permanent entry. While this information may have changed in subsequent versions, this is really no different than the fact that subsequent publications can overturn existing results. What is different with versioning of preprints is that we get to see more of this process in the open, which feels like a good thing overall.

3) Authors should acknowledge that arXived preprints have to not been through peer review.

At first sight there is more validity to this point, but I think it is also weak. As an author, and as a reviewer (and indeed as a reader), you have a responsibility to question whether a citation really supports a particular point. As an author I invest a lot of time in trying to track done the right citations and to carefully read, and test, the papers I rely heavily on. As a reviewer I regularly question authors’ use of particular citations and point them toward additional work or ask them to change the wording around a citation. Published papers are not immune from problems, any more than preprints are. If I, and the reviewers of my article, think it is appropriate for me to cite a preprint then I should be allowed to do so as I would any other article.

Also this argument seems somewhat strange; MBE already allows the normal citation of PhD theses and [potentially unpeer-reviewed] books (as pointed out by Antonio Marco). So it is really quite unclear why preprints have been singled out in this way.

All of my articles have benefited greatly from the comments of colleagues and from peer review. I also have a lot of respect for the work done by editors of various journals, including MBE. However, it is unclear to me who this policy serves. Journal policies should always be a light hand; they should ideally allow the authors freedom to fully acknowledge their sources. I see no strong argument for this policy other than it prevents the further blurring of the line between journals and preprints. In my view the only sustainable way forward for journals and scientific societies is to be innovative focal points for collating peer-review and peer-recognition. Only by adapting quickly can journals hope to stay relevant in an age where increasingly (to steal Mike Eisen’s phrase) publishing is pushing a button.

Graham Coop

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on MBE’s preprint citation policy

  1. Also, with respect to (1), Google Scholar automatically merges (and allows manual merging of) preprints with the final publications. As a result all of the citations for a particular paper (whether in preprint or published form) are credited to the author, and there seems to be no reason why journals couldn’t reasonably report these aggregated numbers if they wanted to. As preprints continue to increase in prevalence it seems likely that other citation indexes will start to aggregate citations in this way as well.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on preprint citation policy | gcbias

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