Exploring the History of Preprints

Table of Contents


The write-up explores the intriguing history of preprints and the crucial role of preprint servers. Preprints are unpublished drafts of scientific papers that researchers share publicly before formal peer review and publication in academic journals. Over the past decade, preprints have grown tremendously in significance across scientific disciplines.

Preprints accelerate scholarly communication and open science by allowing researchers to disseminate their findings quickly without waiting months or years for peer review. This introduction sets the stage to delve into the intriguing and oft-forgotten history behind the origins and evolution of preprints as an alternative format for sharing research.

Preprints provide a way for researchers to stake an early claim on their work, establish priority over their findings, receive informal peer feedback, and contribute to open science, all without delaying sharing their research for months or years during the formal peer review and publication process. While posted preprints have not yet been peer-reviewed, authors can disseminate research findings and get their work noticed rapidly and sooner.

The use of preprints has grown exponentially across disciplines like physics, mathematics, biology, and medicine. Major preprint servers funded by non-profits and scholarly publishers now host millions of preprints. High-profile initiatives like ASAPbio even advocate for preprints to become an accepted stage in the biomedical publication workflow. Yet this booming preprint culture is far from new. Preprints have a rich history stretching back decades, revealing the origins of what has become a vital channel for accelerating scholarly communication.

While often viewed as a novel development, preprints have quite a long and storied history intertwined with key innovations in scholarly publishing. Tracing the origins and evolution of preprints over past decades provides essential context to better understand the resurgence of preprints than we see today across scientific disciplines.

The following sections will delve deeper into the early beginnings of preprints, controversies surrounding their use, and factors underlying their expanding role and prospects in formal scientific communication.

Early History of Preprints

The origin and early history of preprints can be traced back to the early days of scientific communication. In the 17th century, scientists would circulate letters and unpublished manuscripts among colleagues to share discoveries and get early feedback. This allowed for more rapid dissemination of findings than the slow pace of journal publications.

Over time, sharing preprints took on a more formal structure. In the field of physics, preprint culture was especially strong. The advent of the photocopier in the 1950s enabled easy duplication and distribution of manuscripts. This facilitated the wider circulation of preprints in physics.

Establishment of the arXiv Server

A major milestone was the launch of the arXiv server in 1991. Created for physicists to share preprints, arXiv enabled free access to full-text manuscripts before formal publication. This transformed the pace of physics research and communication. Today, arXiv hosts over 1.8 million e-prints spanning physics, mathematics, computer science, and other fields.

Early Adopters Beyond Physics

While physics drove much of the early preprint culture, other fields gradually adopted the practice. In the 1990s and 2000s, areas like mathematics, computer science, and economics started using preprint servers to disseminate working papers. The life sciences have recently embraced preprints, with sites like bioRxiv emerging.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this, as preprints enabled rapid sharing of critical research findings. High-profile preprints influenced policy decisions and public health measures during the crisis. So, while preprints originated as an informal scholarly communication channel, they have become a crucial publication instrument that serves the pace of modern research across many disciplines. The early pioneers of preprints paved the way for their central role in today’s scientific enterprise.

Controversies and Challenges

The rise of preprints has sparked some controversies and challenges within the academic publishing community. One major concern is around quality control and peer review. Unlike traditional journal publications, preprints do not undergo rigorous peer review before being made public. This raises questions about the validity and accuracy of the research findings disseminated through preprints. There is a fear that lower-quality work may proliferate without adequate vetting from experts in the field.

Related to this is the issue of how preprints should be evaluated and credited within academia. Since preprints are often posted before formal peer review, there are debates around whether they should “count” to the same extent as peer-reviewed papers in hiring, promotion, and funding decisions. Some argue that treating preprints on par with peer-reviewed work could undermine academic quality standards. However, others counter that as long as the work is scientifically sound, the distinction should not matter.

Researchers and publishers also face challenges adapting policies and systems to preprints. Journals grapple with whether work previously posted as a preprint can or should still be submitted for publication. And there are concerns around copyright, licensing, and attribution about posting preprint versions of articles already published in journals. Funders, institutions, and individual researchers all need clear guidelines around the use and citation of preprints.

There are also ethical implications to consider regarding disseminating preliminary findings through preprints. While accelerating research communication can be beneficial, releasing results prematurely without appropriate context or before other researchers in the field have a chance to publish could be viewed as scooping. And if flawed research enters the public sphere via a preprint, it could still cause harm even if it is eventually corrected or retracted.

While preprints provide valuable opportunities to enhance scholarly communication, they also raise questions about research integrity, evaluation standards, and ethical conduct. The academic community continues wrestling with these tensions as preprints gain more prominence across different disciplines.

Resurgence and Modern Use

The history of preprints saw its resurgence in recent years, driven by several key factors. The open access movement and push for faster dissemination of research findings have made preprints an attractive option. In addition, developing dedicated preprint servers like arXiv and bioRxiv has provided researchers with a platform to share preprints easily. These servers allow quick posting of preliminary findings and enable open peer review.

The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated the adoption of preprints across scientific disciplines as researchers rushed to share data and findings before formal peer review. As the pandemic unfolded, an explosion of coronavirus-related preprints provided the latest insights when time was of the essence. Beyond medicine and biology, preprints are now common in fields like economics, psychology, and computer science.

History of preprints

Compared to formally published papers, preprints have both advantages and limitations. Additionally, they allow research to be immediately accessible rather than hidden behind journal paywalls during lengthy peer reviews. This enables valuable feedback from the scientific community and the broader public. However, lack of peer review means findings have not yet been thoroughly vetted and may contain errors or misleading claims. There are also concerns about scooping of research ideas and poor-quality studies tarnishing perceptions of the work.

Future Prospects and Recommendations

As preprints gain traction across disciplines, what does the future hold for this emerging form of scholarly communication? I speculate that preprints will continue their upward growth trajectory, becoming a mainstream publication format embraced by researchers, institutions, and publishers alike.

Continued Growth and Adoption

Preprints are likely to see expanded use across scientific fields and even the humanities and social sciences. More researchers will utilize preprints to disseminate findings and establish priority over discoveries rapidly. Preprint servers may consolidate, linking together to enhance discoverability. Institutions will develop clearer preprint policies to encourage and support adoption.

Integration with Peer Review

Innovative peer review and preprint assessment models will emerge in response to quality concerns. We may see double-blind peer review integrated into some preprint servers. Altmetrics and open, post-publication review will complement traditional peer review. Overall, the peer review ecosystem will evolve to accommodate the growing role of preprints.

Changing Business Models

As preprints disrupt traditional publishing workflows, publishers will experiment with new open access business models. Some may integrate preprint servers with their journal submission systems. Others may flip subscription journals to open access using article processing charges funded by institutions and funders.

Contribute to the Future

The future of preprints depends on ongoing engagement from all stakeholders. Researchers should provide feedback to enhance preprint servers and peer review options. Institutions should assess researcher needs regarding preprints. Publishers should innovate business models that support open, early knowledge sharing. Policymakers should address inequities in access to knowledge across disciplines and regions. By working together responsibly, we can shape preprints into an equitable and sustainable format supporting the unimpeded progress of science.


We have delved into the history of preprints and have seen the landscape of academic research profoundly influenced by the culture of preprints. From their humble origins as informal exchanges among scientists to their current status as a cornerstone of swift knowledge distribution, preprints have been shaped by the need for openness, speed, and accessibility in scientific communication.

The widespread adoption of preprint servers and the groundwork laid by early adopters showcase a collective drive towards more transparent and immediate distribution of research that, despite its contentious aspects, has overall enhanced the academic endeavor.

As we look to the future of scholarly communication, the role of preprints appears poised to expand, bolstered by evolving technologies and shifting norms around what constitutes valuable and credible scientific exchange. With the ongoing integration of preprint culture into the broader research ecosystem, stakeholders must remain vigilant and proactive in addressing the challenges associated with this mode of dissemination, such as ensuring quality, preventing the spread of misinformation, and clarifying the role of preprints in research evaluation.

Ultimately, the goal must be to responsibly cultivate preprints to complement peer review, leveraging their strengths while mitigating their risks to advance knowledge. As the academic community forges ahead with this endeavor, it becomes increasingly clear that the historical narrative of preprints is one of adaptation and progress, hinting at the promise of a more collaborative and dynamic future in scientific publication.

Leave a comment