Biomedical research publishing in the era of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing many aspects of our daily lives and forcing us to take another look at behaviors we previously didn’t think twice about. This is also the case for the biomedical research enterprise, which has already changed tremendously during the start of the digital era.
In response to the uptick in COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 research, there is an even greater need to quickly communicate findings about the virus itself, clinical presentations of the infection and potential therapeutic interventions or practices for prevention. As has always been the case, progress in biomedical research is entirely dependent on effective and timely communication to the wider scientific community. Members of the research community play an integral role in evaluating existing findings and facilitating further discoveries. Library shelves that were once packed with physical scientific journals have been replaced with exclusively online journals of varying quality.
Many of these online journals are only accessible via subscription, which can cost hundreds of dollars for individuals and millions for research libraries and institutions. However, subscription-based access models are being questioned in the face of “open-access” platforms, which do not have any fees attached for those wishing to view publications in the journal. This model is also challenging the peer-review process which allows editors to choose anonymous experts to analyze manuscripts and provide feedback before editors decide whether to accept or reject manuscripts.
One prominent modification in biomedical research publishing is the advent of preprint servers, which are online archives that allow for the online public release of manuscripts without peer review or acceptance into an academic journal. While this approach has long been in effect in the liberal arts, it has recently arrived at the biomedical sciences through platforms such as bioRxiv (pronounced ‘Bio Archive), ASAPbio, ChemRxiv and MedRxiv. Members of the biomedical research community were skeptical of preprints because they felt that submitting a manuscript to a preprint platform would affect future acceptance by peer-reviewed journals. However, people’s general support for the value of preprinted manuscripts has demonstrated a deviation from this way of thinking. Preprints allow for quicker communication of results, delaying the time from publication submission to a traditional journal to publication by months. Many preprints are “reviewed” after they are posted by comments on the preprint platform as well as commentary from social media users.
It has been interesting to observe how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the biomedical science publication process. BioRxiv published its first preprint on SARS-CoV-2 in mid-January 2020, and it has amassed more than 500 publications today. MedRxiv, BioRxiv’s clinical counterpart, is also receiving multiple paper submissions a day regarding this topic. Many of the papers submitted to these platforms have provided indispensable information relevant to the pandemic. One publication in early February falsely suggested that the virus could be manmade. This erroneous conclusion was identified within hours and the paper was retracted the next day. While this incident exposed the risks of allowing publications without reviews, it was alleviated by the fact that the post-publication review process worked soon after the manuscript was published.
Top-tier peer-reviewed journals in biomedical research are amending their platforms in response to the pandemic. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer have recently made their COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 related publications open access on the web, with all of the content in one place on its website. Starting on January 27, 2020, the platform has published over 20,000 articles, editorials and clinical reports with almost daily updates. Many peer-reviewed journals are now speeding up the time from manuscript submission to publication. Some independent efforts are allowing researchers to review existing preprints and request reviews of preprints from other platforms. Social media, particularly “#ScienceTwitter,” is another means to communicate, review and debate scientific findings, whether they have been peer-reviewed or posted on preprint platforms. The Twitter platform is impactful in that it can reach many physicians and scientists with valuable and informed opinions, which is of extreme importance concerning publications about COVID-19.
The desire for information stoked by this pandemic will affect our society in many ways for days, weeks, and years to come. While this need for open-access publications has existed for decades, this pandemic has emphasized the need for more efficient ways to communicate scientific findings while ensuring that the findings are appropriately scrutinized and deliberated. As biomedical researchers, we owe it to the taxpaying public to be completely transparent about the research that is being funded by their tax dollars. While no approach to widespread scientific communication will be perfect, the increased use of preprints, the transformation of traditional, peer-reviewed journals, and social media commentary by knowledgeable individuals as a supplement to both methods of publication will be required for biomedical research to adapt and cater to a quickly changing world.
Jazmine I. Benjamin is a graduate student in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.