In recent months, as vaccines and treatments helped reduce the pandemic’s severity, members of the lab have turned away from working on COVID-19. With so many researchers piling into the field, Schoggins says, “there was a sense of saturation.” As a result, his Ph.D. candidates began looking elsewhere for promising dissertation topics.
Overall, the number of pandemic-related papers appears set to decline this year, after explosive and unprecedented growth in 2020 and 2021 (see graph). In key disciplines such as infectious diseases and public health, the proportion of new papers devoted to COVID-19 appears to be flattening out (see table). And in fields more distant from pandemic science, the share of COVID-19 papers is declining, suggesting researchers are returning to their core interests.
The pandemic prompted a massive influx of scientists into related research. As of April, more than 500,000 pandemic-related journal articles and preprints had appeared, according to an analysis of the Dimensions bibliographic database by Philip Shapira of the University of Manchester, who studies industrial innovation. Although those publications make up just 4% or so of all scientific papers published from 2019 through early this year, the surge of papers on a new topic was unmatched in the history of science. In certain disciplines the shift was especially dramatic. Shapira’s analysis—presented in an April bioRxiv preprint—shows that in virology, the share of papers focused on coronaviruses and the diseases they cause went from roughly 3% in 2019 to 28% in 2021, and in infectious diseases the share rose from less than 1% to 23%.
Such numbers have raised concerns about what some scientists call the COVID-ization of research. They fear too many researchers rushed into work outside of their expertise, resulting in poor-quality studies.
One recent analysis suggests such fears are not unfounded. Two-thirds of authors who had at least one publication on COVID-19 in 2020 had no previous papers on a related topic, Dashun Wang of Northwestern University and colleagues reported in an arXiv preprint in July 2021.
In addition, by using a metric it developed, the team found that papers published on COVID-19 in 2020 had lower impact on average than non–COVID-19 papers published during the same year. Using a different metric that measured a paper’s novelty, the group found that the further a researcher had pivoted from their usual area of expertise, the lower the impact of their COVID-19 publications.
A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 376, Issue 6595