How do news audiences respond to disclosures of preprint status?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists were encouraged to convey uncertainty surrounding preliminary scientific evidence, including mentioning when research is unpublished or unverified by peer review. To understand how public audiences interpret this information, we conducted a mixed method study with U.S. adults. Participants read a news article about preprint COVID-19 vaccine research in early April 2021, just as the vaccine was becoming widely available to the U.S. public. We modified the article to test two ways of conveying uncertainty (hedging of scientific claims and mention of preprint status) in a 2 × 2 between-participants factorial design. To complement this, we collected open-ended data to assess participants’ understanding of the concept of a scientific preprint. In all, participants who read hedged (vs. unhedged) versions of the article reported less favorable vaccine attitudes and intentions and found the scientists and news reporting less trustworthy. These effects were moderated by participants’ epistemic beliefs and their preference for information about scientific uncertainty. However, there was no impact of describing the study as a preprint, and participants’ qualitative responses indicated a limited understanding of the concept. We discuss implications of these findings for communicating initial scientific evidence to the public and we outline important next steps for research and theory-building.