Re: Paper not accepted by a journal - still a pre-print?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 7 Aug 2002 17:51:28 +0100

Rob Kling <> wrote:

> I believe that the casual and expanse use of the term preprint to refer to
> any manuscript is not very helpful.

It refers to any manuscript that has not yet been peer-reviewed and/or
published. If the latter, it is a postprint. The substantive
dividing line between the two states of a work is peer-review/publication.

> The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition
> [Electronic version] 1996) defines a preprint as "something printed in
> advance; a portion of a work printed and issued before the publication of
> the whole."

The OED is alas far too slow to keep up with the evolution of this term,
and these new functionalities, in the online age.

> What would a manuscript be a "preprint of" if it were not subsequently
> published?

It would remain an unrefereed, unpublished preprint.

The pre- is now medium-independent, and refers only to whether or not
that draft is one that has been accepted for publication by a refereed
journal or other official form of publication (pre- no, post- yes).

The self-archiving of an unrefereed manuscript is not a form of
publication, or, at best, it is self-publication (vanity press) and
hence should remain in the category preprint.

> A preprint refers to a relationship between a manuscript in one location
> and another copy of that ms. that is in the process of being (formally)
> published elsewhere.

Correct. And the preprint is usually self-archived before the paper is
refereed and formally published. That accepted final draft can be
self-archived as the postprint.


This is an interesting overview of some of the developments in preprint
archiving, but there is no reason why it should be taken as
prescriptive, rather than descriptive of some of the uses and usages
that have led to the present uses and usages.

> What would they be preprints of if they were not subsequently published?

Nothing. Nor would they be prepublications of anything if convention had
been to call them "prepublications." They would remain prepublications,
reserving "publication" for what had passed peer review or otherwise met
a publisher's established standards for publication.

> "if a research memo or technical report was significantly revised
> duing editorial review, the original version should not be called a
> preprint either."

This is not only illogical and impractical, but it goes against current
usage, practice, and good sense.

> Unfortunately, some of this
> terminological diversity clouds the discussions of alternative ways to
> organize Internet forums to support scholarly communication. .."

Agreed. So let us agree to use a clear, sensible terminology that
reflects both usage and functionality.

Preprint = unrefereed prepublication draft
Postprint = refereed, published draft

    "EPRINTS = PREPRINTS (unrefereed) + POSTPRINTS (refereed)"

> "Consider the unusual case in which a scholar writes an article, submits it
> to a journal, and has it both accepted for publication and finally
> published with no changes (including copyediting and updating references).

The case is unusual, but totally nonproblematic. In this case, it turns
out that the postprint = the preprint.

> some articles are never accepted for publication. These
> articles do not merit the label preprint in any stage before their is a
> clear relationship to the article that will be accepted for definitive
> publication in a conference proceedings, journal or book.

Do not "merit"? What is the "merit" of the label (unrefereed) "preprint"?

> "Recently, fewer than 40% of submitted papers have been
> finally accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters (PRL)." It
> should not surprise us if many of the research manuscripts that are listed
> on PPF and that were originally submitted to PRL were not accepted for
> publication in PRL. Perhaps many of these manuscripts rejected by PRL would
> be accepted elsewhere, but few of the manuscripts listed on PPF are
> actually guaranteed to be preprints of any specific publication when they
> are first listed.

It would certainly be misleading (and embarrassing) to list a preprint
as a preprint to appear in a particular journal, if eventually the
journal went on to reject it. Hence unrefereed preprints should be
tagged precisely as such: unrefereed preprints, unconnected with any
official publication. If they are eventually accepted for publication,
their accepted versions are postprints, and the journal-name is

> Unfortunately, physicists have casually used the term preprint to refer to
> research manuscripts whose publication status is similar to articles that
> are called research manuscripts, working papers and technical reports in
> other fields.

There is nothing unfortunate about this. It is not only natural and
informative, but correctly reflects their actual status at that point.
Most of them will end up published somewhere, in some form, eventually.

> "preprints, or 'e-prints,' are manuscripts that have not yet been
> published, but may have been reviewed and accepted; submitted for
> publication; or intended for publication and being circulated for comment."

Not a good definition, and one that would make the term less meaningful
and informative than it already is, if it were used that way (but it is
not, and should not be).

> The PREPRINT Network is a valuable service in the physical sciences; but
> its definition of preprint is so elastic that it can refer to any
> manuscript, even one that is only posted on an author's personal web site,
> and not subsequently published anywhere else.

And so it should. Once the paper is published, the postprint can be
archived, and the journal identified.

> Article- The common term "article" can implicitly refer to a publication
> venue. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an article as "a literary
> composition forming materially part of a journal, magazine, encyclopedia
> or other collection, but treating a specific topic distinctly and
> independently." We will use the term article in a broader way to refer to
> any document that fits the OED's definition, or that is in a form that
> could fit the OED's definition if it were published.

In the eprint era, a postprint is equivalent to a published journal or
conference article (though it could be a book chapter or a book too,
in principle).

> Manuscript - Manuscript is the primary candidate for labeling articles
> that authors circulate prior to their acceptance for publication. The term
> manuscript is still widely used by journal editors to refer to articles
> that are to be submitted and/or are under review. We will use the term
> manuscript to refer to articles that have not yet been accepted for
> publication in a specific venue as well as to articles that have been
> published in an institutionally sponsored venue, such as a working paper
> series or an online server for research articles, such as

Fine. "Unrefereed preprint" is synonymous with "unpublished manuscript" in
this sense.

> Electronic versions may be called e-scripts.

Needless and redundant jargon. "Eprints" is enough, and already in use.

> Preprint - We believe that the term preprint should be used in a strict
> sense to refer to articles that have been accepted for a specific venue.

Too late. Preprint already refers to unpublished manuscripts.

> Preprint refers to a relationship between two documents, rather than a
> feature of a document in isolation. We will use the terms preprint and
> e-print conservatively -- to refer to manuscripts in the form in which they
> are likely to appear in a conference proceedings, journal or book (whether
> in printed form, electronic form, or both). E-print, which some scientists
> use to refer to electronic manuscripts, plays off of its resonance with
> preprints, and we believe that e-prints should refer to electronic versions
> of pre-prints.

This is all too woolly and arbitrary. Yes, there is a relationship
implicit in a preprint (whether on-paper or on-line): It is an implicit
relationship to some future form of official, certified publication.
Before it is officially accepted for publication, it is a preprint.
After, it is a postprint. If never accepted, it remains forever a

This is medium-independent. It is only postprint that is moot for the
paper medium, as in the on-paper era the only form a postprint could
take was the publisher's print-on-paper reprint or offprint. In the
online era of author/institution self-archiving, the author can provide
the postprint as well as the preprint for open access himself, in the
form of (in both cases) eprints.

> The International Working Group was carefully avoiding calling preprints,
> as used by high energy physicists, a "definitive publication." In short,
> many of today's "preprint networks" and "preprint servers" should be called
> "e-script networks" and "e-script servers." These services may include some
> preprints and even definitive publications in their corpuses. However,
> their defining characteristic is to make available research manuscripts
> rapidly and usually inexpensively to readers.

Preprints certainly are not definitive publications. Apart from that,
the above extra terminology is redundant and unnecessary, and would
only create more confusion where things are at last beginning to come
into focus.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Aug 07 2002 - 17:51:28 BST

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