Defining pre-print and post-print in publishing

As Open Access (OA) publishing has evolved, a more-or-less technical language has developed to define the basic concepts that are necessary to understand it. I think that OA is important, and that researchers need to have a fair grasp of these concepts in order to make informed decisions about the ways that their research products are shared. In the past, I have blogged overviews of “gold” vs “green” OA, tried my hand at a summary flowchart to simplify the process, and even wrote my thesis on the topic. Through all of these efforts, I have managed to avoid defining the terms pre-print and post-print, because their usage has always seemed to raise more questions than answers. Thankfully, Bonnie Swoger is braver than I, and has provided a nice overview of the current lexicon in her recent blog post at Scientific American.

As noted on the SHERPA/RoMEO site, a staple of OA-minded folks: “The terms pre-print and post-print are used to mean different things by different people. This can cause some confusion and ambiguity.” Indeed, throughout my own master’s thesis, I delineated pre-print and post-print at the point where the journal provided editorial or formatting changes (e.g., typesetting) that would prepare an article for hard copy or electronic printing (note the placement of the terms on my flowchart). The oversight on my flowchart was brought to my attention via its figshare page, and I am thankful for Theresa Liao making the observation and getting my gears turning! While my figure made sense within the context of the document that it was a part of, the placement of these two terms on the chart may be seen as unorthodox with respect to commonly accepted definitions within the OA-minded community who delineate them at the point of peer review (and resulting edits by the author).

Swoger, who took the semantic bull by the horns, provided concise definitions for both terms in her post:

Pre-print – A pre-print is the original version of the manuscript as it is submitted to a journal. While the authors may have sought help from their colleagues in selecting data analysis techniques, improving manuscript clarity, and correcting grammar, the pre-print has not been through a process of peer review. It typically looks like a term paper – a double spaced .doc file with minimal formatting.

Post-print – A post-print is a document that has been through the peer review process and incorporated reviewers comments. It is the final version of the paper before it is sent off the the journal for publication. It may be missing a final copyedit (if the journal still does that) and won’t be formatted to look like the journal. It still looks like the double spaced .doc file. Sometimes, the term “pre-print” is used interchangeably with “post-print,” but when it comes to permissions issues, it is important to clarify which version of a manuscript is being discussed.

This is in line with the definition that Peter Suber provides in the book, Open Access (p.100-101):

In OA lingo, a “preprint” is any version of an article prior to peer review, such as a draft circulating among colleagues or the version submitted to a journal. A “postprint” is any version approved by peer review.

At the risk of questioning the preferred lingo among the OA tribe, I am still unclear on how these terms came to be synonymous for what might be more-aptly described as pre-review and post-review. Further, I question whether there is any distinct advantage to using and perpetuating the current lexicon (as opposed to taking the literal meanings of “print” and “review” at face value). While it is important and valuable for Swoger to provide this resource for authors who are learning the state of the art and the current lexicon, it almost seems that we, as an OA-minded community, are spending unnecessary time whittling a square peg to fit into a round hole. Why are we perpetuating jargon that needs such clarification when more intuitive words (i.e., pre-review, post-review) are available at the expense of a single syllable each? Would we not have more time to help our colleagues understand OA if these points of confusion weren’t so confusing?

For my own part, I will stick with pre-review and post-review to mean what they ought to, and to avoid pre-print and post-print until a copyright transfer agreement uses these terms without proper definition (which wouldn’t make for much of a binding contract). The pivotal point of OA, in my mind, is what rights change hands when the agreement is signed. While we’re helping our colleagues to understand the complexities of OA, more intuitive terminology will make for more intuitive understandings.

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