On December 31, 2019, the WHO received news of pneumonia cases with unknown etiology in Wuhan, China. Within days, Chinese researchers identified the presence of a novel coronavirus, since called SARS-CoV-2, in patients, which has since spread through the world at a meteoric pace. According to the latest WHO situation report, dated March 25, the virus has infected 414,000 people and killed over 18,400 in 190+ countries. On March 11, the WHO designated the spread of the virus a pandemic.
Since the outbreak began, the number of articles and papers in the medical literature and in the news has skyrocketed. Most of them bear an unforgiving tone, denouncing the virus as a fiend that has been choking the world order out of its normal routines. This is understandable: many countries have sealed borders, entire industries have been shut, trade is negligible and public health systems have been overloaded.
One silver lining in this picture of gloom is that the pandemic has benefited by advancements in scientific publishing, and has in turn validated the usefulness and importance of many of the more progressive publishing strategies scientists have adopted. In all, the culture of free and shared research has both helped researchers make more informed decisions about the outbreak and in return the sensation of the outbreak has highlighted the importance of open science.
From the outbreak’s early days, scientists constantly shared their data from experiments and modelling studies with each other so they could all stay updated about transmission trends. This data was in the form of viral gene sequences, epidemiological results, failed experiments, possible vaccine doses for different age groups, standardised data collected from different groups, etc.
Such sharing helped reduce redundancy by preventing scientists from conducting experiments that had already failed elsewhere and by allowing them to ask the right questions and advance more accurate hypotheses. By sharing data, scientists could also scrutinise each others’ work, provide feedback and access knowledge and talent that they may not possess in their own labs.
For example, after identifying a novel coronavirus strain in patients, Chinese researchers quickly published the virus’s genetic sequence on the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data, an open-data database, on January 10, 2020. By mid-January, researchers in Germany, Hong Kong, and other European countries were able to publish details of a diagnostic test to detect the novel coronavirus based on this information. And based on these researchers’ findings, the WHO dispatched personal protective equipment and testing kits to different laboratories worldwide.
Most preventive measures in the previous outbreaks, such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 and the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003, were informed by delayed or incomplete research. For example, during the H1N1 outbreak, studies based on humans as subjects proceeded very slowly, limiting the amount and scope of real-time data available to share with other scientists. During the SARS outbreak, scientists have reported receiving little encouragement or support to conduct critical cross-disciplinary research necessary to develop antiviral therapies against SARS.
The situation today represents a dramatic improvement.
For example, the journal Nature recently published an editorial encouraging researchers to “ensure that their work on the outbreak is shared rapidly and openly.” The journal also said it is to working to ensure, among other things, that all studies with useful information about the outbreak will be freely available at least for the duration of the outbreak”; once a paper clears peer-review, a copy is sent to the WHO; and that data pertaining to each paper, as well as “protocols and standards used to collect the data”, will be shared with those who need it.
The Lancet has created a ‘COVID-19 Resource Centre‘ that provides free access to COVID-19-related research papers, editorials and other articles published in the journal to help health workers and researchers make better decisions.
The Elsevier group of journals – despite its pronouncedly controversial record of restricting access to research papers – has introduced a ‘Novel Coronavirus Information Centre‘ along the lines of The Lancet‘s resource centre, along with “expert and curated information” for clinicians and patients.
Together with the number of papers that scientists have been publishing, these efforts stand to bring an unprecedented amount of knowledge onto scientists’ as well as journalists’ screens, and further diminish the room for misinformation and false news. According to The Economist, journals published around 490 new articles on viruses alone in the first 80 days of the coronavirus outbreak. Even publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, which have a reputation for thorough and time-consuming peer-review processes, have published more than 15 and 41 papers each on the novel coronavirus. The New England Journal of Medicine even published one paper on COVID-19 within 48 hours of submission.
Another notable feature of this outbreak, vis-à-vis publishing and sharing research, has been the role of preprint papers. A preprint paper is a scientific paper that has been written after a study has concluded but made available to others via an online repository before it has been peer-reviewed. Preprint papers are thus scrutinised not by a small group of scientists appointed by a journal but in the open, so to speak, by everyone interested in the contents of the paper.
Many of the world’s most notable public health journals have endorsed the use of preprints; according to a study published in April 2018, “preprints can complement peer-reviewed publication and ensure the early, open, and transparent dissemination of science relevant to the prevention and control of disease outbreaks due to their broader adoption by scientists, journals and funding agencies.”
To date, nearly 760 articles on COVID-19 have been published on the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint repositories, with over a score in the last two days alone.
During the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, most of the preprints contained novel analysis and new data but fewer than 5% of journal articles on the same topic were made available as preprints prior to publication.
There is a flip side, of course. Some researchers and others have been known to trade accuracy in for speed, and publish articles with careless claims or outright misinformation. On January 31, 2020, a group of Indian scientists published a misleading preprint on bioRxiv about uncanny similarities between the new coronavirus and HIV – perhaps unintentionally – inflaming conspiracy theories that the virus had been created by Chinese researchers. Thankfully the authors retracted their paper within 48 hours to prevent further damage to public conversations around the virus, and other papers debunked the improper conclusions.
Another manuscript submitted to The Lancet claimed the new coronavirus originated from a “viral in-fall” from outer space. A third article claimed the virus had jumped to humans from snakes. Both claims were refuted, prompting Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, to say that “some of the material that’s been put out – on preprint servers for example – clearly has been … unhelpful” and has only fanned fear.
Nonetheless, the benefits of the open research culture still outweigh the disadvantages, especially when journals are taking reasonable precautions to ensure the data available in preprints is as credible as that in peer-reviewed papers. Nature has also launched a new preprint review platform called ‘Rapid PREreview‘, in which the journal subjects a preprint manuscript to a series of yes/no questions, with optional comments, to determine the originality and soundness of its findings. The Lancet has also allotted surge-capacity staff to filter through 30-40 submissions a day and publish the best results.
Preprint repositories such as bioRxiv and medRxiv have also adopted best practices and mention the authors’ source of funds, competing interests if any and a declaration of fairness the way authors of peer-reviewed papers are expected to, plus a note that the paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed.
In addition to these measures, scientists are also increasingly participating in virtual conferences and seminars, and interacting over the social media to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Once the pandemic ends, the world will surely emerge changed in many ways – and the way scientists communicate their results, share their data and help their peers around the world is surely going to be one of them.
Surya Gupta is a final year law student at the O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana.