Preprints: a passport to the widest possible reach for your cancer research

Chances are you have come across a preprint before; you may have read a paper posted to a preprint server or a story in the newspaper reporting the latest COVID-19 findings from a preprint. You may have even posted a preprint yourself. So what is a preprint? Generally a preprint is a manuscript the authors post to a public platform to facilitate dissemination of their work before peer review. John Inglis (co-founder of the preprint servers bioRxiv and medRxiv) has referred to preprints as ‘the directors’ cut’ of a manuscript, a version the researchers consider accurate and ready to share with the community, knowing that it may later undergo changes following feedback or peer review.

While relatively new to biology, the use of preprints has grown in recent years, supported by the launch of new preprint servers and increased interest in open approaches to the dissemination of scientific work. Last year, the COVID-19 crisis drove further attention to preprints as a means to promptly share the latest data available to inform a response to the pandemic, the number of life sciences preprints tripled in 2020, with a preprint posted on average every four minutes. The use of preprints by cancer researchers mirrors this pattern; the number of cancer preprints increased 60 fold in the last five years, and over 10,000 cancer preprints were posted in 2020 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Preprints in the ‘Oncology and Carcinogenesis’ field posted per year in the period 2011-2020, source Dimensions database)

There are several reasons why researchers have positively welcomed preprints. They allow the fast dissemination of results, before or in parallel to the peer review process at journals, which requires months, and sometimes even years; this is particularly relevant for cancer research where the experimental design and process may be longer than in other fields. Importantly, cancer researchers are also using preprints as a ticket for the next steps in their career, as the preprint is a proof of productivity for funding bodies. The recognition of preprints by funders across different countries is increasing and was provided a major boost when the European Research Council announced in 2018 that it supported the inclusion of preprints in grant applications.

The preprint is a public, dated record of the work and thus provides an important insurance against scooping. It gives increasing protection for scientists and the data they generate while they circumnavigate the often lengthy path toward the final publication in a scientific journal. By sharing a preprint, cancer researchers can make all their data -from proof-of-concept data to the latest novel breakthroughs – available to the broad community, in a freely accessible format and in a matter of days. A majority of the journals that publish cancer research accept papers posted in non-profit preprint servers such as bioRxiv or medRxiv. The journals in the Nature, Science or Cell families and the publications by the American Association for Cancer Research all accept preprints. In a recent innovative development, the journal eLife announced that from July 2021 it will only review papers already available as preprints.

If we add to this the availability of tools such as Twitter, researchers can use preprints to efficiently share their work worldwide and maximize its reach and impact. Preprints therefore take an exciting role as a research passport that can open the door to invitations to conferences, media interest or potential new collaborations.

Preprints are a revolutionary form of science communication that drives transparency and credit for researchers. Would you like to take the challenge to preprint your next piece of work?

ASAPbio (Accelerating Science and Publication in biology) was created in 2016 following a meeting involving researchers, funders and publishers which concluded that preprints could have a positive impact on life sciences research. Since then, ASAPbio has worked to promote a productive use of preprints, focusing on three areas of activity: coordinate a global online community of researchers and other stakeholders interested in preprints; provide information and resources about preprints such as infographics, policy updates and a preprint server directory; convene key players to advance best practices around the use of preprints, most recently ASAPbio coordinated the development of guiding principles for the communication and promotion in the media of research shared as a preprint.


Iratxe Puebla

Iratxe is Associate Director at ASAPbio, in her role she supports initiatives to raise awareness about preprints and their productive use in the life sciences, Iratxe also manages the ASAPbio Community. Prior to ASAPbio, Iratxe held editorial roles at the journals in the BMC series and PLOS ONE. Iratxe is involved with the Committee on Publication Ethics and co-leads the FORCE11 Working Group on Research Data Publishing Ethics.

Keti Zeka

Keti is a CRUK Fellow at the Zayed Center for Research Into Rare Disease in Children, University College London, UK. Keti’s research interest aims to explore the cross-talk between proteomics and metabolic aspects of Leukaemic Stem Cells with a strong interaction at an epigenetic level. Keti was trained as a medical biotechnologist in Italy where she also completed her PhD in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Innovation. Previously, Keti was an AIRC-FIRC (Italian Association Cancer Research) and a Marie-Skłodowska Curie Alumna at Cambridge, UK, where she has been involved in teaching cancer molecular biology.