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November 18, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted scientific publishing

CiRA researchers recommend new guidelines for handling the surge of pre-prints about COVID-19.

CiRA researchers recommend new guidelines for handling the surge of pre-prints about COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset countless lives. Travel has been suppressed, economies effectively closed, and health centers and their staff are overrun. The science community, including scientific publishing, has also been disrupted. A letter in the Journal of Epidemiology, written by Assistant Professor Kazuki Ide of the Uehiro Research Division for iPS Cell Ethics at CiRA and colleagues, comments on the effects pre-prints have had on research concerning COVID-19. Based on a quantitative analysis on the number of pre-prints about the disease, the letter explains the need for guidelines on how researchers should use these sources of information.

The peer-review system is a bedrock in scientific publishing. It can be assumed that any paper published in a credible academic journal has had its content reviewed and approved by two to four anonymous scientists beforehand. Today's scientists know no other system for publishing even though the application of peer-review was quite scattered until the 1950s (doi: 10.1063/PT.3.3463).

Peer-review takes time, however. In the stem cell field, it is quite common for a few months to pass before the manuscript is modified to the liking of the peer reviewers. In response, some scientists have recently turned to the pre-print. Here, the manuscript is uploaded onto a server without peer-review.

The mathematical and physical sciences have more quickly adopted the concept of pre-prints. One reason is that it welcomes more scientists to test the theories presented in the manuscript.

The biological sciences, especially those with implications on the human body, have been less enthusiastic. However, the delay caused by peer-review can have serious health implications in times like the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many researchers and even nations have shifted their research focus to the disease, and the surge in output is overwhelming the peer-review system.

The result is argument in the community. Delaying publication could delay progress to a vaccine or cure. At the same time, because anyone can upload a pre-print, these articles are equivalent to the newsfeeds one finds on their social media, whereas peer-review manuscripts are analogous to the stories that appear in newspapers managed by staff with journalistic principles.

Another complication is that while academic journals do not publish articles that have not been peer-reviewed, the articles they do publish may cite pre-prints, giving these pre-prints a sense of legitimacy.

At the same time, because the data in the pre-prints have not been validated by peer-review, it is not unusual for them to disappear. This is the point addressed by the letter. One example provided is two pre-prints that claimed ivermectin may have clinical benefit for treating COVID-19. Both these articles at some point vanished from the pre-print server without explanation. In contrast, while peer-review articles may sometimes be withdrawn, the academic journal always provides the reason.

The letter proposes that all pre-print servers keep an archive of all versions of the pre-print and a clear statement on why a pre-print has been withdrawn. As for scientists who cite pre-print documents, they are encouraged to state explicitly that the cited material has not been peer-reviewed and thus should be read with more caution than a peer-reviewed manuscript.

Paper Details
  • Journal: Journal of Epidemiology
  • Title: Guidelines are urgently needed for the use of preprints as a source of information
  • Authors: Kazuki Ide1,2, Hitoshi Koshiba3, Philip Hawke4 and Misao Fujita1,5
  • Author Affiliations:
    1. Uehiro Research Division for iPS Cell Ethics, Center for iPS Cell Research and Application,
      Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan
    2. The Institute of Natural Sciences, College of Humanities and Sciences, Nihon University,
      Tokyo, Japan
    3. National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Tokyo, Japan
    4. School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Shizuoka, Shizuoka, Japan
    5. Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Biology (AHSBi), Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan
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