The impact of a preprint

Recently I was delighted to have my first paper on the topic of lecture capture accepted for publication. It’s an area I’ve been research-active in for about three years but this paper marks my first peer-reviewed stamp of approval.

The paper has been through the expected trials and tribulations of academic publishing, having been submitted to four journals and through three revisions, so quite frankly, it’s more than a bit of a relief not to have to work on it again. Yet, despite the bumpy journey to eventual publication the paper has already had a significant positive impact upon my career due to being posted as a preprint.

Yet to be published

Preprints are write-ups of research that have yet to be published in a journal and have typically not been peer-reviewed. Preprints began life in physics with the creation of the arXiv, a repository for pre-publication manuscripts, and this model has spread to other disciplines with numerous subject-specific repositories now available such as bioRxiv and PsyArXiv.  

I first submitted the paper to a high impact general journal in March 2017. It was desk rejected fairly quickly with the editor saying that the paper was solid but that it would be better suited to a more specialised journal.

Taking this advice we submitted to a more specialised journal. After six months the reviews came back and it was rejected – I was told that the work was not novel enough to merit publication in this particular journal. Feeling somewhat frustrated, I took the preprint plunge and uploaded it to PsyArXiv in October 2017 and shortly afterwards submitted a revised manuscript to another journal. After two months it still hadn’t been assigned an editor and I was informed that it may take another three months to get an editor, never mind reviewers, so I withdrew the paper.

At about the same time, I was invited to advise on a Senate paper that was to accompany a new lecture capture policy. This Senate paper eventually turned into a review paper with Peter McGeorge that was also posted as a preprint and on the basis of this work, I was invited to write my first article for Wonkhe. A few months later in May 2018, we submitted the original paper to the journal Higher Education.

Conferencing

In June, having been invited as a speaker off the back of the preprint, I attended the Media & Learning Conference. There I met Stuart Phillipson from the University of Manchester and John Couperthwaite from Echo360. I am now writing a paper with Stuart, along with Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel and Louise Robson (both of whom I met solely on Twitter, I am nothing if not a 21st century academic), and I’ll be giving a webinar for Echo360 in December.  I’ve also been invited to give a seminar at UCL next March, again, based on the preprinted work.

Most excitingly, in July I accepted a lectureship at the University of Glasgow which I will start on the 1 November. I am teaching-focused lecturer (by choice) and one of the specifications was a record of scholarship activity. Despite not having a pedagogical publication at the time of applying, the preprints made it clear that I met this criteria and allowed the university to see the quality of my work in a way that stating I had submitted manuscripts on my CV would not.

770 downloads

Without preprints, most of the above would not have happened. I’d still have done the work, but no one would know about it until this week and therefore I wouldn’t have been offered all the opportunities I’ve had. The day that the paper was accepted, the preprint had been downloaded 770 times.

As a teaching-focused academic my rate of publication is relatively slow – my current contract is 85% teaching and admin, 15% research – and I’m constrained in the conferences I can attend due to funding and a heavy teaching load. I (genuinely) enjoy the balance of my job and preprints have allowed me to establish a research profile in a new field (my subject specialism and previous publications are in psycholinguistics) and form new networks and collaborations. For those on the research track, particularly ECRs on fixed-term contracts, I would imagine that there are similar benefits to not being beholden to the often glacial speed of publishing.

Official publication is important and I’m not arguing otherwise – for my career I really needed that paper to be published. And while I may not have agreed with all of the comments the reviewers made, the paper is better for having undergone peer-review. Additionally, there are still some concerns surrounding preprints, although with most journals and a number of major funding bodies now accepting preprints these worries are starting to fade (see here and here for a good discussion and helpful guidelines).

The point of doing research is to communicate the results and by removing barriers to dissemination, preprints are often discussed in terms of their benefits to open science. But if that doesn’t convince you, then remember that they’re also good for entirely selfish reasons. If you are an ECR or an ECT (the term I’ve just made up for early career teaching track) I cannot recommend preprints strongly enough.

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