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Case study: Disseminating early research findings to influence decision-makers

Nazlin Bhimani6 November 2020

A classroom in Uganda

Photograph by Dr Simone Datzberger

Recently a researcher asked for our advice on the best way to disseminate her preliminary findings from a cross-disciplinary research project on COVID-19. She wanted to ensure policy makers in East Africa had immediate access to the findings so that they could make informed decisions. The researcher was aware that traditional models of publishing were not appropriate, not simply because of the length of time it generally takes for an article to be peer-reviewed and published, but because the findings would, most likely, be inaccessible to her intended audience in a subscription-based journal.

The Research Support and Open Access team advised the researcher to take a two-pronged approach which would require her to: (1) upload the working paper with the preliminary findings in a subject-specific open-access preprint service; and (2) to publicise the research findings in an online platform that is both credible and open access. We suggested she use SocArXiv and publish a summary of her findings in The Conversation Africa, which has a special section on COVID-19. The Conversation has several country-specific editions for Australia, Canada English, Canada French, France, Global Perspectives, Indonesia, New Zealand, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States, and is a useful vehicle to get academic research read by decision makers and the members of the public. We also suggested that the researcher publicise the research on the IOE London Blog.

What are ‘working papers’ & ‘preprint services’?

UCL’s Institute of Education has a long-standing tradition of publishing working papers to signal work-in-progress, share initial findings, and elicit feedback from other researchers working in the same area. The preprint service used thus far at the IOE is RePEc (Research Papers in Economics), which includes papers in education and the related social sciences). RePEc is indexed by the database publisher EBSCO (in EconLit) and by Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search. Commercial platforms such as ResearchGate also trawl through RePEc and index content. Until it was purchased by Elsevier in May 2016, the Social Science Research Network or SSRN was the other popular preprint repository used by IOE researchers although its content is indexed mainly for its conference proceedings. The sale of SSRN to Elsevier resulted in a fallout between authors and the publisher, and this resulted in SocArXiv entering the scene. SocArXiv is an open access, open source preprint server for the social sciences which accepts text files, data and code. It is the brainchild of the non-profit Centre for Open Science (COS) whose mission is to increase openness, integrity and reproducibility of research – values that are shared by UCL and are promoted on this blog and by the newly formed Office of Open Science and Scholarship (for more information see also the Pillars of Open Science). In the spirit of openness, most papers on SocArXiv use the creative commons license CC-By Attribution-NonCommercial-NonDerivatives 4.0 International, which safeguards the rights of the author. As papers on SocArXiv are automatically assigned Digital Object Identifiers (DOI), they discoverable on the web, particularly as Scholar indexes SocArXiv content.

What are the benefits of using preprint servers?

Whilst research repositories such as UCL Discovery are curtailed by publisher policies on what research can be made open access, this is not always the case for papers submitted on preprint subject repositories. Without wanting to repeat what my colleague Patrycja Barczymska has already written in her post on preprints I can confirm that in addition to signalling the research findings and eliciting feedback, other benefits to depositing in preprint servers include the enhanced discoverability as most will automatically generate DOIs at the time a paper is uploaded, the possibility of obtaining early citations and the alternative metrics that indicate interest (e.g. the number of downloads, mentions, etc.)  that services such as SocArXiv provide. Researchers can also list open-access working papers in funding applications.

Does uploading a working paper in a pre-print server hinder the publication of the final paper?

Researchers are concerned, and rightly so, that publishers may not publish their final research output if preliminary findings are deposited in preprint servers as working papers. However, more often than not, working papers are exactly that – work in progress. They are not the final article that gets submitted for publication.  It is also likely that the preliminary findings and conclusions in the working paper will be somewhat different from the final version of the paper. It is worth knowing that some of the key social sciences publishers, such as SageSpringer, and Taylor and Francis / Routledge and Wiley, explicitly state that they will accept content that has been deposited on a preprint server, as long as it is a non-commercial preprint service. In other words, researchers must not upload the working papers on platforms such as academia.edu and ResearchGate.

These ‘preprint-friendly’ publishers simply ask that the author informs them of the existence of a preprint and provides the DOI of the working paper at the time of submitting their article. Some ask that authors update the preprint to include the bibliographic details, including the new DOI, when their article is published, and that authors add a statement requesting readers to cite the published article rather than the preprint publication. Although a definitive list of individual journal policies does not exist, submission guidelines generally clarify issues related to preprints. Researchers may want to use the Sherpa Romeo service (and Sherpa Juliet for key funder policies) to obtain additional information.

More than a success story

The above case demonstrates how preliminary research findings can be shared expeditiously and in an open environment to aid the decision-making process.  It also demonstrates that open-access subject-specific preprint services can be beneficial to promoting both the research and the researcher, and that there is now wider acceptance among publishers that the traditional models of publishing are not always viable. This is especially true where cutting-edge research is required as in the case of research on COVID-19.