What’s a preprint, and how do I use it?

If you’re getting into research, you may have heard the words “preprint” or “arXiv” (pronounced like “archive”) thrown around. In today’s bite, we’ll guide you through what these things are, and how they fit into the research life of an astronomer.

So, what is a preprint? What is arXiv?

It’s no secret that academic publishing takes a long time. Plus, it’s often inaccessible — in order to download a research paper, you usually need some sort of log-in information to get past the paywall. Students and researchers generally get access through their institutions, but this can be a much bigger problem for those without academic affiliations, such as science journalists.

ArXiv presents a workable solution to both these problems. It’s an open-source research-sharing website, run by staff at Cornell and funded by donors and organizations like the Simons Foundation. Unlike formal publishing, there is no cost to post or access a research paper on arXiv. People also are required to upload their files as LaTeX code, with the hopes that the documents will be longer lasting in that form. Since the publications posted on arXiv are not usually already peer-reviewed and are not formally published (printed), they’re called preprints. 

For astronomy, we typically use astro-ph, the astronomy section of arXiv, but there are other topics available including math, other subfields of physics, economics, computer science, and more. Other fields, like biology (see biorXiv), have their own versions of a preprint server. Within astro-ph, there are smaller divisions: galaxies, cosmology, Earth and planetary, high energy, instrumentation/methods, and solar/stellar astrophysics. 

What do I use preprints for?

One of the most common uses of arXiv is just reading and keeping up with the literature. New articles are posted almost every day, excluding holidays, following the arXiv schedule. Reading papers on arXiv is a great way to stay in touch with the newest frontiers of research, and many departments hold journal clubs or “astro-ph coffee” meetings to discuss new, interesting papers from the arXiv. 

And if skimming a bunch of research papers on the arXiv sounds intimidating — that’s what Astrobites is for! We’re known as the “astro-ph reader’s digest” because we take new papers from the astro-ph arXiv and summarize them for you in a more accessible and engaging way.

Of course, when you have finished writing a research paper, you can also post to arXiv. More on why/when/how to do this in the following sections!

Why are preprints important? How do preprints fit in with the rest of scientific publishing?

As mentioned earlier, research papers are often inaccessible and slow to publish. The peer review process requires reviews from multiple other scientists, which can take months, and possibly even multiple rounds of revision before the article actually goes to press. Preprints allow scientists to share results faster, helping people build off each other’s work on more reasonable timescales. It also lets people put their work out there as soon as possible, which can help scientists with time-sensitive results show their idea before someone else can take it (known as “getting scooped”). 

Preprints are also extremely important for the idea of open-access science. This is even more critical now that President Biden announced that federally-funded research must be made accessible without paywalls. There are two main ways to make things open access: post to arXiv, or pay the (sometimes exorbitant) fees for open access publishing in a journal. It’s yet unclear whether arXiv will count in the government’s open-access push, but no matter what it’s a great option for making your work accessible to anyone.

You may be wondering — if they’re not peer reviewed, why would I trust these preprint papers? 

At least in astronomy, people generally only publish papers that are submitted (or about to be submitted) to a journal, so they’re generally quality work and have been collaboratively reviewed by co-authors before posting. Plus, with arXiv, those posting articles can indicate the status of their manuscript’s publication (submitted to X, under review at X, accepted in X, published in X) and update the manuscript as it progresses through the review process with an official journal. 

The version on arXiv will almost never look exactly like the published version, though, with all its formatting specific to whatever journal it’s published in, since the final published version usually remains the property of the journal and therefore cannot be posted to arXiv.

The big question: I wrote a research paper — should I put it on the arXiv?

We have a guide to the nitty gritty details of posting to arXiv here on Astrobites. But how do you decide to post in the first place?

Each subfield of astronomy, and even each research group, has its own norms for whether to post and when to post a paper on arXiv. Some post their papers upon submission to a journal, others upon acceptance with minor revisions, and others only upon final acceptance. Also, not all journals allow arXiv submissions, so be sure to check with the guidelines of the journal you’re submitting to.

My advisor taught me a couple of factors that can help you decide when to post:

  • Is your paper time-sensitive, or likely to be scooped? Post upon submission, so others can see your work ASAP.
  • Do you actively want more feedback beyond the peer reviewers? Post upon submission or sometime before final acceptance, so people have a chance to read it and provide feedback.
  • Is there not really any time pressure, and you want to make sure the work is fully complete and solid before sharing widely? Post upon final acceptance.

No matter when you post, make sure to update your arXiv posting once your paper is published. That way, the arXiv listing for your article will show both the open access arXiv version, and link to your final, official, peer-reviewed version. I think most astronomers would agree that it’s worth posting to arXiv at some point, since that’s where so many scientists keep up with the literature — then your science will get more feedback, more views, and have a bigger impact!

Astrobite edited by: Jessie Thwaites

Featured image credit: arXiv (If you’re not sure what this weird smiley face is, take a look at this explainer thread!)

Disclaimer: “Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily intended to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS supports Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content that appears on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by the AAS.

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a PhD Candidate and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing, and playing with her rescue dog Rocky.

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