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What a preprint is – and why that matters

Leigh Beeson

New research from the University of Georgia suggests most people don’t understand the difference between a preprint and a published academic journal article.

Preprints are research papers that haven’t undergone peer review, the process by which studies’ findings are validated by experts who weren’t involved with the research themselves.

The study found the majority of readers have little to no understanding of what a preprint actually is. That lack of understanding could lead to public distrust in science since findings and how those findings are described can change between the preprint phase and publication following peer review. Frequent reporting of scientific preprints could also hurt trust in news.

Preprints used to mainly circulate within scientific communities, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented numbers of preprints flooding the internet.

The desire to get information out as quickly as possible was understandable, the researchers said. But it also sets a problematic precedent.

“With preprints, there are still uncertainties that haven’t been ironed out,” said Chelsea Ratcliff, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of communication studies. “A lot of preprints never even get published. I really think it’s important that the public understands that.

“If people are basing attitudes, for example, about a new drug on evidence from a preprint or if they’re basing health decisions on a preprint, they should be able to have a sense of its preliminary nature.”

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Image: Photo via Getty Images

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