An exponential blast of Covid-19 scientific research

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May 6, 2020

More than 7,000 papers on the pandemic—covering everything from virology to epidemiology—have appeared in the past three months (see chart). A fifth of them have come out in the past week alone.

This is astonishingly fast. Researchers usually take years to design experiments, collect data and check results. Scientific journals, the self-appointed keepers of the gate between those researchers and the rest of the world, can easily take six months, often a year, to grind through the various steps of their procedure, including editing and the process of checking by anonymous outside experts, known as peer review.

The current public-health emergency has, however, turbocharged all this. With physicians, policymakers and prime ministers all needing the latest science in order to make immediate life-and-death decisions, speed has become paramount. Journals have responded to sharp rises in submissions by working overtime. In so doing they have squeezed their normal processes down to days or weeks.

Dr Lipsitch recommended that preprints form a bigger part of a faster information “ecosystem” during future emergencies. And his wish, it appears, has been granted. The two biggest relevant preprint servers for covid-19 are bioRxiv, set up in 2013, and medRxiv, launched in 2019, both of which are run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state. (The “x” in the names represents the Greek letter “chi”, making them pronounceable as “bioarchive” and “medarchive”.

Anyone can submit a manuscript to one of these servers and see it made available to the world within hours. Submissions are given a cursory check, to weed out opinion pieces and to ensure that they have the parts expected of a scientific paper—an abstract and sections describing methods and results. If the topic is controversial, the checkers may flag up outlandish claims. But beyond this they do not attempt to review the scientific contents of the paper. Once a preprint is online, anyone with access to the internet can read it and, if they so wish, leave detailed comments.

This process—essentially a free-for-all version of peer review—can be brutal. But it often works. Conspiracy theories about SARS-CoV-2 being an artificial, laboratory creation were fuelled by a preprint posted to bioRXiv in January, by Indian scientists. This claimed “uncanny” similarities between the genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 and HIV, the cause of AIDS. The study was torn apart as soon as it appeared, though, by other researchers who weighed in and pointed out serious methodological flaws. As a consequence, the manuscript has now been withdrawn.

This incident does, however, highlight a repeated criticism of preprint posting, which is that dodgy material may be misused, either accidentally or deliberately, by overzealous patients, politicians, journalists or just plain troublemakers. It is certainly a risk. But in the opinion of many, that risk does not outweigh the advantage of the free and fast flow of information between researchers that preprints provide.

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