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There have been a couple of occasions in my research in which I've come across a preprint that is several years old and is very relevant to the work that I'm doing.

Often these preprints have very promising initial results. However, when looking at the CVs or Google Scholar pages of the authors on the preprint, I can't seem to find a version that ended up getting published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if the preprint is several years old already. Why would would a researcher abandon a manuscript that they obviously put a lot of time into?

Do researchers sometimes just abandon lines of inquiry because they get too busy? Or, is this an indication that their promising initial results were not robust enough for peer-review, and I should be wary of attempting a similar study?

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There might be any number of reasons. You might try to contact the author(s) to get more information. But... (not all with the same likelihood)

They might have left academia for various reasons and not bothered. Is the CV also old?

They might have incorporated the key ideas into another paper with a very different title. You search is then fruitless.

They might have discovered errors.

Reviewers might have considered the results trivial.

Their attempts to publish might have been rejected by journals for other reasons.

They might have changed sub-fields. (This one less likely, I think.)

But you should be wary, at least, of following up on unpublished work and, at least, be sure that you can verify the claims independently.

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    One other important possibility (if it's math), everything with the preprint is basically fine but they submitted to a top journal and the refereeing process took 2 years but the paper was rejected, they then spent a year revising based on those reports and other feedback they'd gotten, spent half a year deciding where to resubmit, then it took another year and a half to get accepted at the second top journal, but their backlog is such that it takes another year and a half for it to be published. So now 6 years have passed and the preprint isn't published anywhere. – Noah Snyder Jul 18 at 18:00
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    @NoahSnyder that sounds oddly specific... – Mark Omo Jul 18 at 23:20
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    That’s not actually intended to be the exact story of a particular paper (mine or others), but more a realistic amalgam of different stories of mine and others. – Noah Snyder Jul 18 at 23:36
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    I second the suggestion to consider contacting the author. You should have a low threshold for doing that. – Mark Foskey Jul 19 at 2:14
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    @NoahSnyder this hits home. I think this happens more than people think. – nimcap Jul 19 at 7:35
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Not all peer-reviewed papers are solid, and not all non peer-reviewed papers are unsolid.

Judge for yourself.

Seriously, sometimes people cannot be bothered to fight with reviewers about minutia, relevance, impact, significance; worse, sometimes people have a problem to get a paper published in a journal that later proves to be seminal to a field. The story of Schechtman comes to mind (or also some colleague from my own field who wrote an absolutely central paper for my field which took several years to get published in a peer-reviewed journal).

If it is an experimental paper and hard for you to verify, you may tread more carefully, but anything that's theoretical and in your reach to check for yourself is worth consideration if you need it.

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As others mentioned, there can be various reasons.

Perelman only published his proof of the Poincare conjecture as preprints. It was enough for everybody to hear about his proof, so why bother?:-)

Mochizuki only published his proof of the abc conjecture as preprints (to be more precise, he also published it several years later in a journal where he was the editor-in-chief, if I am not mistaken). In this case, the extra reason was the proof was too complicated, so nobody could referee it :-) (I am cutting some corners:-) )

  • "he also published it several years later in a journal where he was the editor-in-chief, if I am not mistaken" you are mistaken—there was a rumour they had been accepted to appear in such a journal, but it didn't happen. The papers are still not published, and only a small group of people accept Mochizuki's proof as doing what he says it does. – David Roberts Jul 22 at 7:09
  • @DavidRoberts : Thank you. So this is also a "clean" example:-) – akhmeteli Jul 22 at 14:01

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