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In applying to the NSF postdoctoral fellowship for mathematics, the instructions include the following paragraph for the biographical sketch:

A list of: (i) up to five products most closely related to the proposed project; and (ii) up to five other significant products, whether or not related to the proposed project. Acceptable products must be citable and accessible including but not limited to publications, data sets, software, patents, and copyrights. Unacceptable products are unpublished documents not yet submitted for publication, invited lectures, and additional lists of products. Only the list of 10 will be used in the review of the proposal.

My question is what exactly does "unpublished" mean? Is a paper uploaded to the arXiv but not yet submitted for publication in a journal considered "unpublished"?

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I would interpret "published" to mean exactly what the text says — citable and accessible.

ArXiv papers are both citable and accessible, and therefore do count as acceptable research products.

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    in general, I would agree with you and count arXiv papers, as well as any self-published paper, as “published”. Yet, in these instructions, they explicitly write “not yet submitted for publication”, which I interpret as they meaning “not published in peer-review journals”… (because “submitted for publication” does not make sense in self-published or arXiv context)
    – F'x
    Oct 6, 2013 at 7:32
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    @F'x I disagree. Why do you think it doesn't make sense? ArXiv explicitly uses the word "submission" in their online forms. The process of "submitting" a manuscript to arXiv looks exactly the same to me as submitting it to any journal which has an online-only pipeline. Then a moderator takes a look at it, and if it is not blatantly outrageous it is circulated the next day. And yet, unfortunately, if we believe this recent article, this might still be more than what some journals do for a peer review. Oct 6, 2013 at 7:50
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    NSF explicitly changed its reporting requirements from "publications" to "products" a few years ago. Open-source software projects, data repositories, textbooks, and even blogs are considered acceptable research products, despite having little or no peer review. But even before this change NSF happily accepted arXiv papers as publications for reporting purposes. They really don't care about peer review as much as public dissemination. Also, applications for the NSF math postdoc are reviewed by mathematicians, who are generally natives of preprint culture.
    – JeffE
    Oct 6, 2013 at 17:15
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    Of course, you should ask the program manager to be sure. Sadly, that's currently impossible.
    – JeffE
    Oct 6, 2013 at 17:16
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    @JeffE: Mathematicians certainly are comfortable with preprints, but in my experience we're careful to distinguish them from publications (i.e. in peer reviewed journals). (Source: I am one.) I would think if they were acceptable here, the instructions would use the word "preprint". I agree that it is ambiguous, however, and I would welcome an official clarification. Oct 7, 2013 at 21:32
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NSF has an official FAQ for their proposal guide. One of the entries in the FAQ is applicable here.

Instructions for the Biographical Sketch Products section indicate that “acceptable products must be citable and accessible.” Accessibility may be difficult to accomplish in the case of manuscripts submitted or accepted for publication and other documents and materials. Access may need to be provided through organizational or personal websites. Will that be sufficient to meet the proposal submission requirements?

The requirement that all products be "citable and accessible" is not a submission requirement, in the sense of blocking a proposal from consideration, but a definition of the standard to which proposers should adhere. PAPPG Chapter II.C.2.f(i)(c) also notes that full citation information should be included where applicable and practicable. References to organizational or other websites are allowable, provided that the site is available for a reasonable percentage of the time.

From this statement, it is clear that NSF would consider a preprint server to be a reasonable place for a work product to be located. In fact, the key consideration seems to not be citation per se (you can cite pretty much anything), but simply having a clearly defined "thing" that is readily accessible for the review committee to inspect.

Given this statement and the confidentiality of peer review processes, it is next important to observe that there is no way for a proposal reviewer to distinguish between:

  • A preprint that has been submitted
  • A preprint that has not been submitted
  • A preprint that was submitted at the time when the proposal was written, then rejected before the proposal came up for review.

Between this and the shift to a general definition of "work product" it is clear that NSF is trying to give as much latitude as possible for the review committee to say "this person is doing interesting work, let's give them a fellowship." It would make no sense for a committee to be allowed to consider a non-peer-reviewed software repository on GitHub but not a non-peer-reviewed preprint on arXiv.

Bottom line: material on preprint servers is fine to include in an NSF biosketch.

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