By Matthew Bauer
During the COVID-19 pandemic, science has moved quickly, and the pace of disseminating research findings also has sped up.
When science (and the media) moves this quickly, all involved — including scientists, journalists, and the general public — should exercise a greater degree of caution when interpreting research.
Peer review vs. Preprints
A growing number of scientific papers are now being shared as preprints, reaching wide audiences before receiving any peer review.
Though preprints are not peer-reviewed, they undergo basic screening and checks against plagiarism. These papers are available at open-access repositories such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv (both have garnered record numbers of submissions during the pandemic).
Key advantages of disseminating research findings as preprints include cost and speed. Many top-tier peer-reviewed journals cost hundreds of dollars to publish in, have lengthy review processes, and hold published articles behind paywalls, limiting readership. By contrast, preprints can be uploaded to open-access repositories free of charge and can move through a basic screening process in as little as a few days.
The drawbacks are that by omitting the peer-review process, readers are left to take the science at face value, without the gold standard of other scientists critiquing and offering suggestions before it is published. In fact, a number of studies submitted as preprints never make it to a peer-reviewed journal for one reason or another.
The risk to the end consumer
A number of news sources now regularly cover preprints, particularly those related to COVID-19, elevating previously niche findings to mainstream news.
A key concern with this practice is that the examination process for scientific research has been shifted from scientific experts into the hands of science journalists.
While many reputable news outlets employ qualified scientists to help communicate complicated science topics to the masses, this doesn’t match the process of peer review.
This new paradigm of fast science — moving from the bench scientist, to the preprint, and then to a potential news outlet — requires more from the end reader. Ideally, the reader should be aware of the preprint status of the research, understand what that means, and judge the media coverage accordingly — i.e., with a more critical lens.
This issue came to a head early on during the pandemic when a research group published a preprint which misleadingly claimed to find similarities between the coronavirus and HIV, with wording in the publication suggesting the virus had some qualities that indicated it was potentially engineered by humans. While this preprint was taken down, in the few days it was live, it had the potential to reach vast audiences. This situation highlighted the risk preprints pose in terms of unvetted junk science entering the public domain.
Social media isn’t helping
Social media platforms like Twitter have further exacerbated the concerning trends described above.
In the age of science Twitter, participants have moved from sharing peer-reviewed published science, towards preprints, to now snippets of to-be papers in tweets.
Instead of waiting to put together an entire preprint, scientists can now highlight the first figure of their to-be paper on Twitter, garnering excitement and buzz from the relevant scientific community. These first glimpses can get science to relevant audiences to critique and discuss in minutes, compared to the months-long process associated with peer review.
This a huge win for scientists who want to get feedback and generate buzz for future publications. But it can also be a nightmare when comments or findings are taken out of context or misinterpreted and explode in the mainstream media.
Dr. Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute, has felt these pressures firsthand. During the pandemic, Dr. Andersen has regularly used his personal Twitter account to communicate important science to his followers, which number over 85,000.
In June 2021, Buzzfeed leaked an early 2020 email from Dr. Andersen to Dr. Anthony Fauci with language suggesting that some features of SARS-CoV-2 seemed to be (potentially) engineered.
While Dr. Andersen’s own peer-reviewed scientific findings highly discredit the theory that the virus originated in a lab, when his private comments came out, his scientific work faced new scrutiny and the resulting Twitterstorm prompted Dr. Andersen to temporarily shut down his account.
In a New York Times feature story around the events in June 2021, Dr. Andersen stated, “I have always seen Twitter as a way to interact with other scientists and the general public to encourage open and transparent dialogue about science. Increasingly, however, I found that information and comments I posted were being taken out of context or misrepresented to push false narratives, in particular about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Daily attacks against scientists and the scientific method have also become common, and much of the conversation has steered far away from the science.”
While these stories highlight the tremendous scientific advancement during the pandemic, they also emphasize the sometimes treacherous, fast-moving terrain. Science discussions previously held in the likes of laboratory conference rooms are now happening on a public stage. The casual observer should interpret accordingly. News outlets should also work to improve scientific literacy in their readers — for example, emphasizing the distinctions between different venues for disseminating scientific research and what that means for the findings published therein.