Preprints are original research manuscripts which have been shared prior to undergoing peer review. Preprints are typically shared on a preprint archive.
Preprints first arose in the late 20th century in scientific fields such as physics and mathematics. For many years, human-focused disciplines, such as health sciences, were wary of preprints. However, over the last five years, this has shifted significantly. Changes began in 2017 with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) encouraging researchers to share interim research products funded by the NIH via repositories such as preprint servers. In 2019, the first explicitly health sciences focused preprint server was launched: medRxiv. Then COVID-19 hit, sending a wave of articles to preprint servers including medRxiv.
Preprints are now an important component of the research landscape in the health sciences. As a result, searching preprint servers is now an important component of a comprehensive review of unpublished literature on health sciences topics.
There are a few common concerns to sharing health sciences research prior to peer review.
Some people may be concerned that submission to a preprint archive will preclude publication in an academic journal. This is not true. As described by Bourne, et al. (2017):
"very few journals consider preprints as a “prior form of publication” and reject such manuscripts on the grounds that they had been posted to a preprint server."
Some have articulated a concern with preprints in the health sciences on the grounds that without peer review acting as a bulwark, poor quality research will be more easily accessed and misinterpreted by lay people (Maslove, 2018). However, peer review is not always a successful bulwark, as we know from infamous examples such as Andrew Wakefield's autism paper, and several more recent COVID-19 studies.
The current consensus is that the benefits outweigh any drawbacks.
People share preprints for a variety of reasons including but not limited to:
UCSF Library. What are Preprints and Why Do We Need Them?
UCSF Library. Which Journals and Funders Allow Preprints?
Columbia University Medical Center. What is preprint? Is it the right publishing choice for you?
Bourne PE, Polka JK, Vale RD, Kiley R. (2017). Ten simple rules to consider regarding preprint submission. PLOS Computational Biology 13(5): e1005473.
Pickler, Rita H. Publishing Preprints, Nursing Research: 9/10 2019 - Volume 68 - Issue 5 - p 337-338