Pursuing Preprints, Preventing Pandemics: How pre-peer review posting can accelerate outbreak science

Pursuing Preprints, Preventing Pandemics: How pre-peer review posting can accelerate outbreak science

Preprints – scientific papers posted online prior to peer review – offer opportunities to share and discuss research rapidly and openly, and Michael Johansson, infectious disease expert and founder of the nonprofit Outbreak Science, believes they could revolutionize data-driven responses to disease outbreaks.

In a new PLOS Medicine Essay, Johansson discusses his analysis of preprint posting during the Ebola and Zika epidemics and explains preprints’ potential to accelerate outbreak science. I interviewed Johansson via email to find out more.

What got you interested in the science behind outbreaks?

MJ: Epidemics threaten human health for everyone, everywhere, and their complex causes and dynamics demand creative scientific research. Outbreaks represent a uniquely important opportunity to put science into practice to protect lives.

What are preprints, and how might they benefit outbreak science?

MJ: Preprints are scientific manuscripts posted online prior to or concurrent with submission for peer review and publication in a scientific journal. They offer opportunities to share data and findings sooner and to get broader community feedback before publication. During outbreaks, decisions that can save lives must often be made quickly and with little information. The fast, open nature of preprint posting can help address these needs.

You wanted to investigate information sharing via preprints during the Ebola and Zika epidemics. How did you go about this?

MJ: Preprint practices are changing rapidly, and we wanted to examine their use during outbreaks, when preprints could be particularly useful. Thankfully, there are open sources for scientific publication data. We collected data related to each outbreak from PubMed, an open online database of scientific publications, as well as several open preprint repositories.

What did you find?

MJ: We found that the number of preprints increased substantially between the Ebola and Zika epidemics. They were also being used to share new data and analyses and to make them available months before matched journal publications (a median of 150 days earlier!). However, we identified preprints for less than five percent of all journal articles for each outbreak, indicating that while there has been some success, there is still plenty of room for greater adoption.

How do you hope to see preprint practices change in future, and what still needs to be done to get there?

MJ: Preprints have clear value to scientific communication, but they are still new to a lot of scientists, publishers, funding agencies, journalists, and the public. It’s important for all of these groups to recognize the benefits of preprints and to integrate them into the way they publish, read, and use science. I look forward to a future where preprints are a valued source of early data and results, open and available to all, and where they accelerate the use of evidence to drive outbreak response.

Research Article: Johansson MA, Reich NG, Meyers LA, Lipsitch M (2018) Preprints: An underutilized mechanism to accelerate outbreak science. PLoS Med 15(4): e1002549. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002549

Images Credits: Geralt, Pixabay CC0; Michael Johansson


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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