Coronavirus Research Is Moving at Top Speed—With a Catch

Jonathan Read admits to being something of a dinosaur when it comes to publishing his work. An epidemiologist at Lancaster University in the UK, Read had always followed the old ways—submit to a journal, get accepted, get comments and edits from peer reviewers, revise the article, publish.

But a few years ago, something started nagging at him. That process typically moves a lot slower than a disease outbreak. And even when it moves fast, it can involve considerations besides rigor. Submitting papers on Ebola during the summer of 2014, Read says he felt like his team was getting overlooked by journals in favor of research that’d garner more attention from journalists upon publication. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Next time this happens, we should just blog it,’” Read says.

He’s working on the new coronavirus now, and when 2019-nCoV started spreading, Read thought he’d put aside his saurian nature and try something new. “Rather than trying to submit it to a journal, we thought it was important to say what was happening,” Read says. His team dropped “Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions” on medRxiv—that’s “med-archive,” a life sciences preprint server. No peer review, no revisions. Just press a button and it’s on the internet. It was probably good for science overall. It also blew up on social—a lightly cautionary tale from a new world of science communication and infectious disease.

Traditional journals have activated various emergency protocols to speed things up during the outbreak—faster publication cycles and dropped paywalls, primarily. Teams of scientists around the world are bypassing them anyway, communicating not only their early-days conclusions but also their methods and approaches. Researchers say this time the speed and sheer number of preprints has been unprecedented.

That’s good! Because it makes science faster and better, and it’s helping life scientists join other fields in embracing a new mode. But it’s also a little scary. Scientists aren’t the only ones who can download a preprint. That opens up the work to possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

This week, coronavirus papers dominated the top 10 spots on Rxivist, which tracks traffic and topics on bioRxiv. When I spoke to Ran Blekhman, the University of Minnesota genomics researcher who runs Rxivist as a side gig, people had downloaded the top article 29,000 times. “This paper was published six days ago, and it’s already the most downloaded paper of all time in the microbiology category and the 17th-most downloaded paper overall,” Blekhman says. “I haven’t seen that before.”

Some of that new interest is because preprints help move the science forward. “The primary benefit is probably in scientists being able to improve their work, to see what other scientists are working on, and come up with some consensus,” says Maia Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “For outbreaks especially, I think no matter how hard a journal tries to make review as rapid as possible, there’s still going to be a delay.” Not so for preprint servers.

It helps, too, that biomedical journals have gotten a lot clearer about their willingness to publish, after traditional review, articles that have already been out in the world via preprint servers. That wasn’t always the case. But now heavy-hitter journals like The Lancet, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine have all told researchers that a preprint doesn’t take an article out of the running—albeit with varying degrees of clarity and completeness. That policy shift removed some of the disincentive; now nobody has to balance the ethics of publishing potentially life-saving work in a fast-moving field against the necessities of getting published in journals to get grants and tenure. In fact, about two-thirds of articles posted on the preprint server bioRxiv go on to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

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