Preprints are increasingly being used to share manuscripts that are not yet peer-reviewed to enable the rapid dissemination of research findings. In particular, they have also become an important source of information for wider, non-specialist audiences keen to follow COVID-19 research developments, including news and social media, policymakers and the general public.
However, despite caveats about their nature, many readers can still confuse preprints with peer-reviewed manuscripts, accepting and quoting the information as fact. Problems arise when unconfirmed, but already widely shared preprint results, later prove to be wrong or misinterpreted, and this can be very difficult to correct – it is further compounded if unconfirmed findings have been used to inform reviews and guidelines.
A new, peer-reviewed paper published in BMC Medical Ethics, Preprints in times of COVID-19: the time is ripe for agreeing on terminology and good practices, sets out why good practice should be agreed now. Although valuable guidance on ethics and integrity in scientific peer-reviewed publications is provided by relevant international organisations, in particular the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), it becomes more complicated when some form of publication has already occurred prior to peer review and is widely available.
The pursuit of rapid dissemination can confuse those not familiar with the scientific publishing process. The wording itself “preprint” implicitly suggests the contents have already be approved, which may increase the probability that they are widely promoted and disseminated before a robust external evaluation.
“While rapid, open dissemination of research findings is ethically imperative, it is equally important to avoid that unconfirmed findings wrongly feed the public’s expectations or orient policies and practices. Hence, the multidisciplinary group decided to publicly advocate for good practices, in line with the principles of research ethics and integrity”, says Raffaella Ravinetto, Senior Researcher at the ITM Public Health Department and chairperson of the ITM Institutional Review Board.
The paper’s authors call for a balance between early access to research findings and any unwanted negative consequences, such as the rushed adoption of policies unsupported by evidence on efficacy and safety, and misplaced or unrealistic expectations from the public, policymakers and stakeholders. To help achieve this, they recommend adding clear agreed terms, including an explanatory statement to avoid misunderstandings, along with five recommendations for the publication of preprint papers:
- A consensus on a term clearer than ‘preprint’, such as ‘Unrefereed manuscript’, “Manuscript awaiting peer review” or ‘’Non-reviewed manuscript” would greatly benefit readers interpretation of what a pre-print is;
- Caveats about unrefereed manuscripts should be prominent on their first page, and each page should include a red watermark stating ‘Caution - Not Peer Reviewed’;
- Preprint authors should certify that their manuscript will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and should regularly update the manuscript’s status;
- High-level consultations should be convened, to formulate clear principles and policies for the publication and dissemination of non-peer reviewed research results;
In the longer term, an international initiative to certify platforms that comply with good practices could be envisaged.
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