E-preprint: a scientific publication evolution or revolution?

Giovanna F. Miranda*,  Jeannette Ginestet**
* Sanofi-Synthelabo, Research Centre Sanofi Midy, Milan, Italy
** Sanofi-Synthelabo Research, Montpellier, France


"Electronic publishing" refers to information/publications that are stored in computers. The first widely successful automated electronic archive, developed in 1991 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was the "arXiv e-print server" for research papers in physics and related disciplines. Disciplines besides physics went on to create e-print servers, where authors can make their research open to everybody as soon as it is completed.
Electronic publishing in biomedicine has brought many advantages such as sharing information, faster and cheaper dissemination of research results, and distribution to a wider audience, including scientists in developing countries and the lay public. Besides traditional print journals, new online journals and electronic journals are being published.
Although users tend to prefer electronic publications to the printed version, especially when they can link to the full text of the article, biomedical information published on the Internet raises a series of questions about quality and reliability, and the persistence of that information, i.e. archiving. Access to biomedical electronic publications, journals or server repositories is another outstanding question. Some publishers provide free access to the abstract or to the full text; many others restrict access to subscribers by employing a number of access control measures, such as IP address validation, username/password or a combination of both.
There are many different ranks of "electronic publishing" in the biomedical field, varying from papers that have already been published in print journals and have been adapted into electronic form, to scientific papers that are only published electronically.
This scenario produces a confusing range of terms defining electronic publications: prepublication, preprint, e-print. We will use the terms "preprint" and "e-print" to refer to two different kind of publication.
The purpose of our preliminary exploratory study was to check the Sanofi-Synthelabo research scientists' attitude to electronic preprint publication.

Material and Methods

For this survey we sent a questionnaire to scientists in eight Sanofi-Synthelabo research centres in Europe and the United States.
Researchers (chemistry and pharmacology) thus received a questionnaire investigating their attitude about browsing pre-print publication servers, and using e-print servers to disseminate their results.


Electronic journals and publications are widely used today among researchers. A study on access to the biomedical literature in an academic biomedical library showed that the electronic version was more used than ten times more often than the print version.
A survey at the Max Planck Institute found that access to electronic journals and publication had become important for the top-level researchers and that their main drawbacks were the lack of archiving, incomplete issues and lack of back numbers. 
Also at the Sanofi-Synthelabo research centres electronic journals and publications are widely used, but the survey shows that browsing pre-print or e-print servers is not yet a widespread habit among researchers. Sanofi-Synthelabo scientists consider e-print or pre-print servers a convenient way to share their results with their colleagues. They particularly appreciate the numerous advantages of these publications, such as no delay in publication, no space constraints, enhanced presentation with multimedia data and the possibility of linking references to other documents. Nevertheless, they would never consider submitting their own papers to e-print servers rather than to a traditional peer-reviewed journal or server.
These contradictory results may be partially explained by the intellectual property problems linked to electronic prepublication, such as authorship and/or priority date of publication for patents. The lack of peer review and of being listed in a well-known scientific journal, also play a role in these attitudes.
Although Sanofi-Synthelabo researchers consider not peer-reviewed data as of secondary importance or unreliable, they think that information published on e-print or pre-print servers could lead them to modify a research project. This is because, thanks to the rapid publication process, they quickly find out about competitor teams working on the same topics.
Scientific papers that are not peer reviewed and are published only electronically can be considered like drafts that need to be shared quickly among researchers, or as preliminary results that could benefit from input from a broader research community. This new approach could shift the reader emphasis away from high-impact factor journals as reference sources, and increase the importance of specific articles rather than the journal in which they appear.
In any case, when data are only published electronically authorship, plagiarism, and "priority date of the publication" for patenting are potential problems. Some American Science Associations, including the Association of Science, Technical, and Medical Publishers have proposed two stages: "first publication" in a permanent form to establish priority, and a refereed version as the "definitive publication".
An important point is whether the release of research findings prior to formal peer review leads to the appropriate or inappropriate adoption of new finding in clinical practice and could have an impact on the research projects, leading their participants to make changes.
ClinMed Netprints clearly warns that the articles posted in its site have not yet been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal and invite readers not to act on the findings and journalists not to report them. Is this warning respected? And what about the lay public?
The creation of electronic free global repositories for primary literature in the life sciences on the Internet has prompted the major scientific publishers and organisations to cooperate in setting up an alternative to paper publication. 
In any case, in the opinion of most editors print journals are not doomed to extinction. Print journals have the great advantage that they can be read anywhere. The editors of BMJ report that the electronic and paper versions have two different audiences that overlap only a little, meaning both are important to readers, but in a free market high-cost/low circulation journals would be forced to go electronic or disappear.
A group of 12,095 researchers signed an online petition calling for the establishment of freely available, unrestricted databases: The Public Library of Science. Researchers say they will stop buying, publishing in or reviewing for any journal that refuses to place its research papers in the Public Library of Science within six months of their initial publication.
It appeared that we are still at the beginning of the electronic revolution in scientific publishing. The next five years will see greater change.