Over recent years, the research community has been increasingly using preprint servers to share manuscripts that are not yet peer-reviewed. Even if it enables quick dissemination of research findings, this practice raises several challenges in publication ethics and integrity. In particular, preprints have become an important source of information for stakeholders interested in COVID19 research developments, including traditional media, social media, and policy makers. Despite caveats about their nature, many users can still confuse pre-prints with peer-reviewed manuscripts. If unconfirmed but already widely shared first-draft results later prove wrong or misinterpreted, it can be very difficult to "unlearn" what we thought was true. Complexity further increases if unconfirmed findings have been used to inform guidelines. To help achieve a balance between early access to research findings and its negative consequences, we formulated five recommendations: (a) consensus should be sought on a term clearer than 'pre-print', such as 'Unrefereed manuscript', "Manuscript awaiting peer review" or ''Non-reviewed manuscript"; (b) Caveats about unrefereed manuscripts should be prominent on their first page, and each page should include a red watermark stating 'Caution-Not Peer Reviewed'; (c) pre-print authors should certify that their manuscript will be submitted to a peer-review journal, and should regularly update the manuscript status; (d) high level consultations should be convened, to formulate clear principles and policies for the publication and dissemination of non-peer reviewed research results; (e) in the longer term, an international initiative to certify servers that comply with good practices could be envisaged.
BMC medical ethics
Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nationalestraat 155, 2000, Antwerp, Belgium. email@example.com.