A corona publication appears twice as fast

01 May 2020

Corona research goes through the scientific publication process twice as fast as any other research, as scientific sociologist Serge Horbach discovered. That acceleration might be seen as mainly positive – knowledge becomes available faster – but it can also be at the cost of the quality.

669 articles: this is the number of medical publications of which Serge Horbach, scientific sociologist and mathematician, manually noted the date of submission to the professional journal and the dates of acceptance and publication. What did he find? The time between submission and publication was half the length for articles about corona as that for other publications.

Usually, it can easily take six months or more before journals approve a manuscript for publication. During that time, fellow scientists review the results critically and sometimes request supplementary research. This peer review forms one of the cornerstones of scientific quality control, but it is also unnecessarily slow, as many researchers complain.

Development of a vaccine

The fact that the publication process is suddenly going faster in corona research is also commendable, says Horbach. “Nobody wants new knowledge to lie around for months unnecessarily. The faster reliable research data is publicised – about the development of a vaccine, for example, or the effect of measures taken – the sooner we will be delivered from the pandemic and its consequences. ‘Scientific journals are keen to help that process.’

However, as Horbach writes in a publication on BioRxiv, the shorter running time can also put pressure on the quality of publications. BioRxiv is what is known as a preprint server, where scientists can post an article even before it has been through the peer review process. As can be read on retractionwatch.com, a website which closely follows the discussions about debatable publications, multiple corona articles have been criticised after publication.

No extra experiments

The need to publicise corona research as fast as possible may well be influencing the critical powers of editors and reviewers, in the opinion of recently graduated scientific sociologist, Horbach. Certain journals also no longer allow reviewers to request extra experiments – partly for practical reasons, since many laboratories are closed due to the corona crisis. Such supplementary research normally costs a few months of delay in publication.

Horbach also believes that competition with medical preprint servers such as medRxiv may play a part in the accelerated publication process too. ‘A lot more publications appear on those sites now than before the pandemic, meaning that results become available quickly. So everyone immediately uses them, from the WHO to Donald Trump.’ The versions which subsequently appear in professional journals seem to come a little late in the day, even if they were critically reviewed by professional peers before publication.

‘Quality assessment in peer-reviewed journals may well be falling short right now’

As such, preprint publications are not a problem, Horbach emphasises, since scientists are well aware of the limitations of this kind of publication. ‘I’m more concerned that the quality assessment in peer-reviewed journals may also be falling short. That’s less obvious to people.’

He sees the irony in the fact that his own article also appeared on a preprint server before independent quality assessment. ‘The article is waiting for approval by a professional journal – they advised me to post the manuscript on BioRxiv in the meantime. I have faith in the reliability of my research – colleagues in Leiden and Nijmegen read it beforehand. I’m looking forward to the review comments, they only make an article stronger.’

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