The power of preprints: an omicron case study

Much has been recently been written about the value of preprints which facilitate rapid and open dissemination of research findings to a global audience (if you’d like to read more about the rise of preprints in the life sciences I would recommend this editorial published in Nature Cancer). However, much of the discourse surrounding the benefits of preprints has been anecdotal. Of course sharing research findings early is a good thing, but what actual impact can a preprint have?

We present here a mini case study which highlights the initial effects of sharing a topical preprint during a pandemic. I plan to track the preprint over the next few months to see how this will translate into future publications.

Case Study: the EAVE II project

There were various headlines in the media on 22 and 23 December which reported the the discovery that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 appears to be much milder than Delta. This news was prompted by research from the EAVE II study carried out at the Usher Institute. The EAVE II team only finished their analysis on 22 December and were very keen to get their results out in a transparent manner as part of a media briefing they had agreed to do later that day.

Our Scholarly Communications Team helped the EAVE II project to post the results in the University of Edinburgh’s repository as a preprint. Subsequently, the University’s Press Office contacted us to say that this was initially beneficial when the world’s media contacted them to request the underlying data. The preprint is available here:

The reaction was quick as the preprint was picked up and reported by the mainstream media like the BBC (this article in the BBC Science Focus Magazine is a good read), and also specialised services like the Science Media Centre:

expert reaction to preprint on the severity of the omicron variant and vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection in Scotland, from the EAVE II study

Various national advisory groups (e.g Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) were then quickly able to read the research and fold it into their evolving guidance on boosters.

To date the preprint has 22,535 downloads, of which the majority were within the final week of December 2021. 21, 005 downloads in 10 days – that sure is RAPID communication!

If the EAVE II project team had sat on their results and waited for publication in a traditional journal article then all of this activity would have been not possible. I’m extremely interested to see what happens next to the publication.


At the moment I mainly have many questions that I don’t have the answer for. Will this piece of research be submitted for publication in a journal? Publication in a journal and the peer review process will add validation of the results and subsequent kudos from basking in the reflected glow of an esteemed journal title and possibly good citation metrics. But how can the value of preprints be more widely recognised and rewarded? For me, this is a missing part of the process. Or, perhaps the benefit of rapid communication is good enough?




Researchers – what’s new for you from the Library

“Researchers – what’s new for you from the Library” is an event being held in the Murray Library at the King’s Buildings to highlight some recent developments in Library services and resources for researchers. Places are bookable for all University of Edinburgh staff and research postgraduates via MyEd (see booking links below) or just drop into the Murray Library Ground Floor. Coffee and buns will be available from 12.30.

When: Wednesday 28th May
Where: Murray Library, Ground floor

Murray Library

Programme of talks

Each session is 15 minutes each plus 5 minutes Q&A. Pick and choose which talks you fancy or come along to the whole event:

13:00 – 13.20 – Research Data Management

13.30 – 13.50 – Open Access: an overview

14.00 – 14.20 – Post 2014 REF: Open Access requirements

14.30 – 14.50 – Library support for researchers – overview

15.00 – 15.20 – Centre for Research Collections: Science and Engineering historical collections

If you’ve not been along to the Murray Library before then this is a great excuse to come and check out the new building and it’s excellent facilities. Also, did we mention the free Tea/Coffee and Doughnuts?

8000th full text item added to the Edinburgh Research Archive

To round off the week we’re delighted to have just archived our 8000th full text item in the Edinburgh Research Archive. The item to receive this prestigious accolade is a dissertation from the Moray House School of Education called:

Writing in the Junior Secondary Phase “Standard V”.

This dissertation was digitised from microfilm and uploaded to ERA by Stephanie Anderson who we have had the pleasure of working with us for the last month. Stephanie has been working in our Scholarly Communications Team as an intern as part of her studies for a Library and Information Studies Masters degree from Robert Gordon University.

We have really enjoyed having Stephanie join our team for the short time she was here, and we wish her all the best for her future endeavours!

International Earth Day

Tuesday 22nd April has been designated by the UN as International Mother Earth Day. It is a day of action where people from all over the planet do something on behalf of the environment – through local campaigns to pick up litter, plant trees and clean up their communities, to online activism to contact their elected officials and influence policy changes. The University of Edinburgh contributes in part by carrying out original research and freely sharing this knowledge with the world adding to the growing global body of knowledge.

We wanted to highlight some of the materials in our Open Access collections that looks at research themes closely related to #MotherEarthDay – including sustainable development, renewable energy and global climate change:

1. Reducing uncertainty in predictions of the response of Amazonian forests to climate change (Lucy Rowland, PhD 2013)

Our understanding of global climate change is mainly based on computer modelling. To date there are few studies which have comprehensively tested vegetation models using ecological data from Amazon forests. Using data this thesis presents an investigation of how tropical forests respond to changes in climate and with what certainty scientists can model these changes in order to predict the response of Amazon forests to predicted future climate change.

2. Climate change uncertainty evaluation, impacts modelling and resilience of farm scale dynamics in Scotland (Michael Rivington, PhD 2011)

Climate change is a global phenomena that will have a wide range of local impacts on land use. The work undertaken in this PhD thesis indicates that agriculture in Scotland has the potential to cope with the impacts but that substantial changes are required in farming practices

3. Making sustainable development a reality: A study of the social processes of community-led sustainable development and the buy-out of the Isle of Gigha, Scotland (Robert Didham, PhD 2007)

This PhD thesis examines the concept of sustainable development with a primary focus on its advancement and implementation at a local level. This work is based on original ethnographic research that was conducted on the Isle of Gigha, Scotland following the community buy-out of the island that occurred in 2002.

4. Climate change and renewable energy portfolios (Dougal Burnett, PhD 2012)

The UK has a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. This will see the proportion of energy generated in the UK from renewable resources such as wind, solar, marine and bio-fuels is increasing and likely to dominate the future energy market over the next few decades. This PhD thesis explores the influence of climate change on renewable electricity generation portfolios and energy security in the UK, with the aim of determining if climate change will affect renewable energy resource in such a way that may leave future low carbon generation portfolios sub-optimal.

5. An Assessment of the Impact of Climate Change on Hydroelectric Power (Gareth Harrison, PhD 2001)

This PhD thesis describes a methodology to assess the potential impact of climatic change on hydropower investment, and details the implementation of a technique for quantifying changes in profitability and risk. A case study is presented as an illustration, the results of which are analysed with respect to the implications for future provision of hydropower, as well as our ability to limit the extent of climatic change.

The tale of the open access ‘ugly duckling’

‘The ugly duckling’ illustrated by Bertall (1820 – 1882); 

Image source Wikimedia Commons 

It is often assumed that the Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines is the open access’ ugly duckling’ lagging far behind the Science, Technology and Medicine collective. Whilst this may be true in terms of the pure volume of open access articles and journals published (in part due to both support and pressure from research funders), this is certainty not true in innovation, for example the hugely successful  Open Humanities Press which publishes well-regarded open access books, and grassroots interest from academic staff.

A lot of recent attention and dialogue has focussed on some of the negative attitudes shown towards open access in the Humanities and Social Sciences, whilst a lot of the positives have been under reported and ignored. I would like to take the time to dwell on some of these and show the potential HSS has to become a beautiful open access swan.

Specifically, I have been intrigued by two encouraging phenomena in the social and behavioural sciences and the humanities; Firstly, the blossoming number of Library-Academic partnerships producing new journals, and secondly the rise of the cross-discipline ‘super’ journal.

 Library-Academic owned Open Access Journals

The HSS grassroots interest is wonderfully demonstrated by the number of new Open Access Journals being set up (using the Open Journal Systems platform) by academic staff in partnership with their University Libraries. Some excellent examples include the University of St Andrews Library Journal Hosting Service which publishes the following titles:

  • Ethnographic Encounters
  • Journal of Terrorism Research
  • Theology in Scotland

and the University of Edinburgh Journal Hosting Service which currently publishes:

  • Res Medica
  • The South Asianist
  • The Unfamiliar

You will notice that five out of the six titles listed here are from the HSS domain, and this trend is set to grow further with at least another two HSS journals in the pipeline to be published via these platforms this year.

So why are HSS academics more active in this space above and beyond other subject disciplines? Perhaps the Library has developed closer relationships with HSS academic staff, maybe HSS academics feel they are not being catered for adequately by publishers and feel the need to provide their own publishing options. I don’t know the answer, but I am extremely encouraged by these developments. It shows there is a fundamental interest in making HSS research open access, albeit perhaps in a different way that people expect.

Cross discipline ‘super’ journals for the Humanities

Another growing trend we are seeing in the Humanities & Social Science is for both  traditional and unconventional publishers attempting to provide a format of large, cross-discipline, open access journal which publishes original research and review articles similar to the PLoS One model. This was beginning to happen organically but seems to have been kickstarted by the Finch report and corresponding RCUK policy.

The first initiative I noticed was Sage Open which published its first issue in 2011. Unlike the sciences this open access journal has adopted an extremely low article processing charge to reflect the relative levels of funding available in HSS disciplines. The APC is discounted for institutions that have taken out subscriptions to their journals.  This is an interesting approach not seen elsewhere, and offers an incentive to keep the subscription renewed.

Other similar initiatives have taken alternative approaches for funding. The Social Sciences Directory and the Humanities Directory were launched in 2012 by a small independent publisher. The business model they are promoting is a yearly modest institutional membership fee which would enable all authors from that institution to publish for free at point of use. At the time of writing this article both directories were trying to gain traction: the Social Sciences Directory has published a couple of articles and the first issue of the Humanities Directory is yet to launch.

Palgrave Macmillan is another well-established commercial publisher that is actively experimenting with new publishing models. They have recently announced paid for open licences across all of their content, including monographs and Palgrave Pivot – a mid-length format (midigraph?) pitched somewhere between a journal article and a monograph. There are plans to expand this open access offering in 2013 with the launch of a fully open access journal, accepting articles from across the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Finally, I would like to mention the Open Library of Humanities. This is an independent initiative owned and led by the academy with the aim of building a low cost, sustainable, Open Access platform for the Humanities, similar in vision to the well established Public Library of Sciences. (Full disclosure – I am on the LibTech committee for OpenLibHums and wish to see it become a fully fledged successful enterprise). 
Summary remarks

‘The ugly duckling’ illustrated by Bertall (1820 – 1882); 

Image source Wikimedia Commons 

I think that the social sciences and humanities is far from being the open access ‘ugly duckling’ that many people unfairly consider it to be. It is clear that there is an appetite from publishers, academics and libraries to change the way scholarly publishing works in the Humanities and Social Sciences by embracing the open ethos. Most people recognise that the current status quo is unsustainable; however, for meaningful change to happen a critical mass of authors, editors and reviewers need to be ready to participate. Similarly the financial figures need to add up and be sustainable in the longer term for all involved, including scholarly societies, libraries and publishers. Far from being the threat that many people think open access is; I think the future looks very encouraging for the open access swan that is the Humanities and Social Sciences.



Gold Open Access: Counting the Costs

The Digital Library team at the University of Edinburgh have written a new paper analysing the cost of Gold OA over the past few years. The data arises from managing the Wellcome Trust’s Open Access grant awarded to the university.

Some of the article’s main take home messages are:

  1. Hybrid journals seem to be more popular venues for Open Access  publication, and
  2. Hybrid journals generally charge more than full OA journals independent of journal impact factor, and
  3. There is a positive correlation between APC cost and impact factor for both hybrid and full OA journals.

Some more reflective points arising from the work:

  1. It appears that Open Access policies require rigorous compliance monitoring to be successful, and seem to be more effective when punitive sanctions are imposed.
  2. Research-intensive institutions are likely to be hit by a cost ‘double whammy’; they not only publish more articles, but they also publish them more frequently in high-impact-factor journals.
  3. Institutions need to be more open about costs, and publish the data in a format that allows reuse.

The full article is available here:

The data set upon which the article is based is available here:


Open Scholarship at UoE

Welcome to Open Scholarship at UoE.  Here we will be blogging about our initiative to  develop and promote open working practices within the University of Edinburgh. We will post about local and international activities related to open scholarship, updates of project progress and investigations into the impact of what working openly means for universities and the wider community.