Caution, Preprint! Helping non-scientists distinguish between different types of publications
Nonscientists often have difficulty in recognizing different types of scientific publications, and hence in determining their trustworthiness / a series of studies has found: a brief explanation at the beginning of the publication can help
A current research project with the participation of social psychologists from the University of Cologne has shown that a short explanation of scientific quality control helps non-experts to better classify research results and their credibility. Particularly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of scientific articles is being published as so-called preprints. Preprints have not undergone the established peer review quality control process, which has often led to confusion. The current research project also found that many nonscientist readers are not able to distinguish between preprints and peer-reviewed publications without further explanation, and considered the two formats to be equally credible. However, once the study participants were provided with a brief explanation of the difference before reading, they became more wary of preprints. The article ‘Caution, Preprint! Brief Explanations Allow Nonscientists to Differentiate Between Preprints and Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles’ has appeared in the journal Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science.
Unlike in the peer-review process, preprints are not reviewed by other experts in a given field before publication. During peer review, authors are asked to respond to the criticism of reviewers or to explain why it does not apply. This is an essential quality control for scientific publications which preprints lack, and many researchers are therefore concerned about possible impacts on the general public, journalists, and policy makers who may not be able to distinguish preprints from the peer-reviewed literature.
In five studies conducted in Germany and the United States, the research group involving scientists from Social Cognition Center Cologne (SoCCCo) at the University of Cologne investigated whether this concern is justified and whether the problem can be solved by briefly explaining preprints and the peer-review process.
The first two studies show that nonscientists indeed perceive research results published in preprints as equally credible as results published in peer-reviewed articles. In the two studies, participants were shown a series of real research results. They were subsequently asked to rate the credibility of these research findings. The twist: Depending on the study condition, participants had been told that the research results came either from preprints or from peer-reviewed articles. However, this information was found to have no effect on credibility assessments without a more detailed explanation. This suggests that concerns about a lack of understanding of preprints may be justified.
In the follow-up studies, the researchers therefore first gave participants an explanation of preprints and the peer-review process. Participants who had read this explanation were now more wary of preprints and assessed them as less credible than reviewed articles. In study 5, the researchers developed and tested an abbreviated version of this explanation. ‘Even this concise explanation enabled nonscientists to distinguish between preprints and peer-reviewed literature. In summary, our research shows that even a brief explanation of the concept of preprints and the lack of peer review allows people evaluating scientific results to adjust their perceptions of credibility,’ said Tobias Wingen, lead author of the publication.
Based on this result, the authors recommend that preprints should be accompanied by an appropriate explanation. Journalists reporting on preprints should also ideally explain the format first, as many nonscientists learn about research results through the media. This would allow for the benefits of preprints – e.g. faster and more accessible science communication – while reducing concerns about public misconceptions of the results.
Tobias Wingen, M.Sc.
Social Cognition Center Cologne
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