Covid-19 and the evolution of scientific publishing

Since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, research on covid-19 has accelerated substantially, as has the speed of its publication. [1] At its core, scientific progress depends on the effective communication of well-vetted research results to the scientific community. We now see that process buckling under the strain of a crisis, propelling a debate over how journals should balance speed, volume, and accuracy in the publication of science in general, and what elements of traditional peer review can be accelerated without impacting quality? 

Researchers and journals are stretching their capacities in conducting, writing, reviewing and publishing a wealth of pandemic-related research. This is noticeably redirecting resources from non-covid-19 scholarly activity, with many journals warning authors of delays in review, and a relative subordinate status of their work. 

One interesting effect is that scientists have been uploading papers to preprint servers at unprecedented rates. Preprints such as bioRxiv and MedRxiv are publishing hundreds of papers monthly. [2] However while pre-prints have much to offer, some healthy skepticism is warranted regarding the scientific rigor and impact of these works. At the least, many of these manuscripts are speculative, and not to be confused with fully peer reviewed manuscripts. Pre-prints aside, over the past year we have also seen some research that has been rapidly peer reviewed and formally published, but which have generated impact through controversies and retractions. [3] The public consumption of information needs to distinguish between earnest thoughts and proven facts. 

Some scientists have switched their research direction to covid-19 (45% of the 1,000 covid-19-related papers posted on the preprint server arXiv are authored by researchers who usually publish in high-energy and condensed-matter physics). [4] Visibility is also changing. Whereas, publications on other coronaviruses (SARS and MERS) were largely published in specialty journals, at present covid-19 articles are appearing in publications with broader audiences. [5] Some authors are opportunistically choosing to work on covid-19-related manuscripts in hopes of improving their scholar profile by taking advantage of the zeal for these contemporary manuscripts.

Will publishing of biomedical literature be the same after covid-19? Traditionally, scientific journals prioritize depth over speed. The hunger for information brought on by the pandemic has changed many aspects of our society; are we entering a new era of a scientific 24-hour news cycle? The need for more efficient and faster ways to communicate robust scientific information is propelling change. Communication in general is always influenced by fad or trend, factors typically eschewed by science, but there is merit in trying to improve the “consumability” of science while preserving credibility. [6]

Given the intense international interest in covid-19 papers, many editors have implemented a triage system, using a group of specialist experts to provide an initial assessment of a manuscript, and reserving resources for a detailed review of a select number of articles that make it through initial triage. This type of change could create a new landscape where the enhanced use of preprints, the evolution of “standard” journals, and effective use of social media will all be required to adapt science to a changing world. In recent years, it has become conventional for journals to offer a fast-track publication option; thus, speed does not necessarily entail poor quality. The experience that the editorial and review processes are gaining during the covid-19 era might be beneficial, as journals adopt best practices for the rapid, transparent, and thorough triage, review, and publication of manuscripts. The combination of accelerated review and social media platforms could result in true scientific dialogue—a back and forth between the authors and the readers mediated by journals.

Nonetheless, the remarkable speed and rate of publication of covid-19 research raises concerns about the quality of the evidence base and the risk of misinformation being spread. Vigilance is required by journals and all involved parties to prevent unwarranted action, driven by flawed evidence, and precipitating public mistrust in science.

Dimitrios Moris: fourth year General Surgery Resident, Duke University Medical Center           

Allan D Kirk, professor of surgery, Chairman, Department of Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Former Editor in Chief, American Journal of Transplantation. 

Conflict of interest: None declared


  1. Palayew A, Norgaard O, Safreed-Harmon K, et al. Pandemic publishing poses a new COVID-19 challenge. Nat Hum Behav 2020 doi: 10.1038/s41562-020-0911-0 [published Online First: 2020/06/25]
  2. Fraser N, Brierley L, Dey G, et al. Preprinting a pandemic: the role of preprints in the COVID-19 pandemic. bioRxiv 2020:2020.05.22.111294. doi: 10.1101/2020.05.22.111294
  4. Gibney E. The pandemic mixed up what scientists study – and some won’t go back. Nature 2020;582(7811):173-74. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01525-z
  5. Haghani M, Bliemer MCJ. Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented mobilisation of scholarly efforts prompted by a health crisis: Scientometric comparisons across SARS, MERS and 2019-nCov literature. bioRxiv 2020:2020.05.31.126813. doi: 10.1101/2020.05.31.126813
  6. Dobler CC. Poor quality research and clinical practice during COVID-19. Breathe (Sheff) 2020;16(2):200112. doi: 10.1183/20734735.0112-2020