How the coronavirus is changing science

One of the more uplifting developments of the bleak past several weeks has been witnessing science rise to the occasion in the face of coronavirus. Video: Trump keeps touting unproven coronavirus science (The Washington Post) Journals, too, are seeing an unprecedented surge in submissions. Many journals have revamped their process to get those papers peer reviewed and published at a vastly expedited pace. “A process that can take weeks has been condensed to 48 hours or less in many cases,” Jennifer Zeis, a director of communications and media relations at the NEJM told me. One preprint posted to the bioRxiv in April looked at 14 journals and found that turnaroundtimes had been, on average, halved. The newer, faster pace could mean that badly flawed preprints get widely shared and covered in the media, fueling the spread of misinformation andforcing other scientists to waste valuable time by publicly debunking papers that would ordinarily be rejected in the peer review process. Before the coronavirus crisis, it would take half a year to write a grant application and months more to see if you got the grant. But preprints do get ideas out faster, put them in front of paywalls, and allow for feedbackand collaboration. Even before the coronavirus hit they were a growing part of where science happens, and coverage of preprints in the media has been getting more common, too. When you submit to a journal, your paper is evaluated to see if it has enough promise to kick off the peer review process. Rejection at this stage is called a “desk rejection.” Papers that pass that standard get sent out to several other scientists in the field for peer review. The print copy follows 2-3 weeks later.” Often, of course, an article is not acceptedas is but is sent back with suggested revisions, resetting the clock. “In an era known for the great speed and availability of information — where we could choose to blog our results rather than submit them to journals — publishing papers seems slower and more painful than ever before,” Vivian Siegel, the editor in chief of Cell, argued back in 2008. The peer-review process being used for SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) was also used when SARS and Ebola erupted in the last couple of decades, a spokesperson for the NEJM told me. “That means that the research articles we publish are reviewed and go through our careful editing procedure.” And yet “everything is expedited tremendously” — faster review by editors,faster responses by peer reviewers, faster work by the “manuscript editors, illustrators, proofreaders, and production staff.” This paper in Science, describing a key protein in the coronavirus that will be targeted in developing treatments and vaccines, was reportedly published nine days after it was submitted. “It’s the same process going extremely fast,” Holden Thorp, the journal’s editor in chief, told the New York Times. In addition to getting responses for journals faster, more and more scientists are using preprint servers to share their research before it is peer reviewed. Nonprofit programs like Fast Grants, which I’ve written about, are trying to fix this by offering a one-hour application process and a 48-hour turnaround. Skeptics of rapid-response grant-making argue that cutting down the approval process typically means that reviewers are forced to rely on vague signals of research quality instead of deeply digging into the relevant medicine and evaluating projects on their merits. In fact, studies show that above some threshold of grant quality, there is virtually no agreement among reviewers about which projects are the best ones. We gain the most from fast science if every step of the process — grants, approvals to conduct the research, peer review and publication — is sped up,and while there are changes happening on all of those fronts, we are not yet at the point of systematically supporting researchers in getting their work done and results published as quicklyaspossible. “We have a responsibility to publish reliableinformation quickly for a public health emergency of this magnitude,” Zeis told me. And that is both daunting and full of considerable responsibility, because if we make a mistake in judgment about what we publish, that could have a dangerous impact on the course of the pandemic,” Richard Horton, the editor in chief of theBritish medical journal The Lancet, told the New York Times. To be clear, many peer-reviewed papers turn out to be wrong — the peer review process doesn’t catch all errors, and it sometimes misses big and serious ones. But preprints are of course even likelier to have serious flaws, including ones that would have beenfixed during peer review or would have caused the paper to be rejected. Many researchers raised methodological concerns and some pointed out math errors, but the initialstatistics had already spread widely. The media coverage might have spurred the peer corrections, but lots of people got misapprehensions about widespread immunity in the meantime. Gallery: Industries that will boom after coronavirus (lovemoney) Just last week, researchers condemned an LA Times article based on a preprint about how the coronavirus had “mutated” to become more transmissible, arguing that the mutation is actually fairly likely to be nonfunctional (as nearly all mutations are) and that the paper ignored better hypotheses about the spread of the variant virus. Other critics advise a much stronger measure for researchers themselves: Don’t put speculative conclusions in your preprints. For that reason, preprint servers like bioRxiv have started screening out papers that make claims based on computational models (rather than experiments in the real world). Certainly, there’s a lot of room for improvement as researchers, media outlets, and individuals figure out how to engage with a new, faster-paced science that relies more on preprints. Faster publication of clinical trial results has helped us better understand how to treat the disease. Research has been used to inform public health recommendations, like allowing states to reopen outdoor facilities first in light of evidence that outdoor transmission is rare, andencouraging face masks in light of evidence of asymptomatic transmission. And even when the crisis is over, making science happen faster will save lives — by speeding up research into cancer treatments, air pollution, climate change, malaria vaccines, and more. It’ll be challenging — it’ll require changing how papers work and doing more to combat misinformation as more and more research bypasses traditional peer review channels.