Peer-review and the COVID-19 Pandemic
The publication of peer-reviewed papers is the primary way through which scientists publicly share their research findings. Before this happens, other experts will review the paper and decide whether the paper should be published (i.e. peer review). Normally, the experts will express some doubt about the results and ask for the authors to conduct more experiments to validate their findings. This back and forth takes several months and sometimes even years before the paper is published, which puts an obvious delay on sharing the results to the wide public.
“Preprint” papers are one way to reduce the waiting period. They date back to the 1960s but are now popular in the medical sciences. Preprints have been especially useful at quickly sharing knowledge about emerging issues like the new coronavirus. These papers, however, have not undergone the peer-review process and so also come with tradeoffs.
Unlike peer-review papers, preprints can be released in the matter of days. However, because the findings have not been evaluated by peers, their claims are less reliable. Furthermore, they are also much easier to release, resulting in an overload of information – both true and false. Colleagues and I found more than 16,000 preprints related to the new coronavirus as of last September. The type of information described in these preprints ranged from diagnostics, therapeutics, contagion along with the genome of the virus.
At the same time, I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that a peer-review paper is without doubt. Unfortunately, a number of papers in medical journals about the new coronavirus that were peer-reviewed prior to publication were discovered to contain unreliable data and accordingly retracted.
This confusion suggests we should not always defer to authority. Rather, calm, rational thought and discussion should always be taken.