Why Arts & Humanities Scholars Should Care About Preprints


Arts and humanities scholars are mostly unaware of the preprint revolution that has swept through academia in recent decades, even as they already take part in it. This particular ignorance is mostly a blissful one, however, demonstrating the near absence of certain types of pressure (“priority of discovery”) that pervade the natural, exact and even social sciences. But our lack of mobilization to create public preprint services in our fields is problematic in other respects, and it is precisely the longer breath that we can afford to take which positions us uniquely to benefit ourselves, fellow scholars and the public at large. Before describing how we can do so (and what we’ve been doing wrong), a few words about the concept and practice of preprints.


In a narrow sense, a preprint is a peer-reviewed or otherwise refereed scholarly text that has not yet been published. That is, it has received and responded to the critical input sufficient to make it publishable in a particular venue but does not possess the formatting and other accouterments necessary to store it and render it discoverable in traditional publishing terms. The time lag between finalizing a manuscript intellectually and its official publication can be significant. Months and sometimes years could pass. The delay is not merely frustrating and technologically hard to justify; in some fields, especially those driven by first-past-the-post competitions over large grants, it may be detrimental to one’s career. In the arts, humanities and the hermeneutical social sciences, a different metabolism means that such dire consequences are rare: a defended dissertation or an article accepted for publication are as good an indication of one’s contribution to the field as the published version. But scholars still may want to share a peer-reviewed work when it’s intellectually ripe rather than when the publisher says so, and to do so through alternative networks and platforms to those their publisher’s might favor.


The pressure to gain recognition quickly and outside the strictures of printed media dovetailed with the popularization of the internet, desktop publishing and the rise of social media. Together they began putting pressure on traditional forms of gatekeeping and stimulated an important debate about when a paper should gain preprint, or for that matter published, status. Some now consider a preprint to be any scholarly manuscript, including a working paper. If the idea gains traction outside the exact and natural sciences—and it’s a discussion I believe is worth having—it would help push the peer-review element temporally beyond the moment of publication, making it de facto part of a work’s public reception. In this scenario, the moment of publication may follow directly from a brief process of moderation on the platform, for instance ensuring basic standards of ethical compliance, relevance and authorship. Small wonder that those academics who seek to make an early mark have created repositories of preprints and successfully promoted the expansion of their remits, from formally peer-reviewed manuscripts, to delivered papers and data sets, to reviews and works in progress, indeed to already published content (“post-print”), all but rendering “preprint” repository a misnomer.


The process has been fairly swift but it shored up at least two key concerns, which scholars—including in the art and humanities—ignore at their peril. First, the traction gained by services such as ArXiv, BioArxiv, ChemArxiv and SSRN convinced commercial publishers and venture capitalists that they are worth buying, or else replicating and integrating into their machinery as a rich and harvestable source of data. In an obvious way, that is the business logic behind investing in freemium platforms such as ResearchGate and Academia [dot] Edu, which effectively operate as preprint repositories and trade on users’ “high-quality” data, or a future capacity to do so. Understandably, therefore, when commercial publishers and information analytics groups gobbled up existing services that also included preprints (as Elsevier did when it purchased Mendeley in 2013 and SSRN in 2016), they raised fears about whether this is a prelude to closing or limiting access to their archives’ contents, or else to incentivizing quantity of traffic over quality of content. At least the former fear seems to be justified.


That privately-owned preprint services are still mostly open is neither charity nor coincidence. It has to do with a second and no less important consideration, namely community building as part of companies’ pursuit of greater market share. The moderation functions that preprint repositories began to practice are an evident boon for the complex logistical apparatus that academic publishers rely on to guide a paper through their workflows. Purchasing preprint repositories that are up for sale, that is which were not founded as non-profits, or else developing private platforms that promise to reward authors and commenters for engaging in such activities (as is the case with Publons, a product of Clarivate Analytics), is thus a strategic move. It is designed to safeguard or indeed increase commercial publishers’ control over scholars’ labor, and not necessarily with the goal of quality control in mind....Make no mistake: there are several companies out there that are building towards an entire workflow on the back of academic publishing, itself a $10 billion industry, only to turn it into one large data mine that is up for sale. Does that ring a bell?


In other words, anytime we upload our preprints to a commercial service, we are preparing the ground for weaponizing scholarship as data in the worst possible sense. Anytime we participate in moderating or evaluating a preprint through a commercial service (even when it’s "free") or on a commercial repository (including when the latter is sneakily concealed under an “.edu” or even an “.org” domain), we are reducing the space for open and independent exchange of ideas. In this fast-shrinking public sphere, the window for truly open preprint archives, acting as a bulwark against privatization and the subordination of scholarship to the interests of business elites, is closing. It is hard to blame those among us who’ve already been pushed too far by the current system for developing sustainable alternatives as they fight for their very livelihoods. The solution has to come from us, scholars in the arts, humanities and those social sciences that have yet to fall victim to the social Darwinism prevalent in many faculties and institutions.


To be clear: for arts and humanities scholars, developing preprint services does not have to be about “accelerating research,” but rather protecting research as a curiosity-driven endeavor. There are some good examples to sustain and follow, including PhilSciArchive, MindRxiv, and Humanities Commons, who operate preprint repositories that are structurally isolated from the business interests of commercial publishers and venture capitalists. Their path involves, not only raising important questions about how knowledge is legitimately produced, but also are consciously moving towards alternative and independent workflows, based on digital infrastructures developed by non-profits such as the Open Science Framework. My next post will evaluate some of their practices as I begin to plan a repository for one of my own fields, medieval studies. I even think I have a name for it…