The COVID-19 Publishing Paradox
Hundreds and thousands of scientific papers are published each day, communicating progress in medicine and up-to-date results to both scientists and the eager public eye. We turn to these articles and journals for reliable information on the latest advancements, with the assurance that the author is an expert in their field and that each work undergoes a rigorous editorial process often spanning months. Indeed, most of the publications we read are the result of months and years of work and a rigorous peer-review process. However, in recent years, light has been shed on the existence of a minority of flawed or even fraudulent publications that lack careful editing and review by publishers.
The discussion of the issue of publication ethics at this time is crucial, as the quantity and speed of publications have skyrocketed during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have suddenly found themselves faced with an overwhelming demand for medical research to be carried out and disseminated rapidly to the concerned public. As a result of these demand pressures, turnover rates of papers related to COVID-19 have increased extraordinarily. For example, journals available on PubMed are now averaging publication only 6 days after the time of submission, with an average of over 350 COVID-19 article publications per week including retractions of select publications.
Rapid publication provides us with new, much-needed evidence and knowledge during this fast-evolving pandemic, but how heavily should the pressure for speed be weighed against the need for extensive peer review and quality control? This paradox must be reconciled. The speed of this research has the ability to save lives, but we must ensure that the credibility of these publications is not put on the line for the sake of urgency alone. We must ensure that the sheer quantity and expedited nature of COVID-19 publishing does not plant doubts about scientific integrity or dilute the pool of evidence that is critical for experts and directly translates to public policy discourse and decisions. Ethical concerns of misinformation are being raised by scholars and they cannot be overlooked—trust is fragile, and at this time, to lose it is a dangerous thing.
What can be done to protect and reinforce the ethics of publication amid the surge in scientific literature? Measures such as the transparent labelling of non-peer-reviewed publications as preprints may help prevent news outlets and the general public from misusing these works or being misled. Given the volume of articles, we must also question the general public’s ability to identify the substance of these articles and their limitations. Requiring a simple summary for a nonprofessional audience on findings, applications, and their limits may help prevent public confusion. Select journals have begun to raise the conventional bar for publications to ensure the vigor of the review process and to refine the growing sea of articles that the general audience is drowning in.
The ethics of publication is central to integrity in research, and now more than ever it must be safeguarded.
Q. Chen, A. Allot, et al. “Publishing Volumes in Major Databases Related to Covid-19.” Scientometrics, Springer International Publishing, 28 August 2020, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11192-020-03675-3.
Palayew, Adam, et al. “Pandemic Publishing Poses a New COVID-19 Challenge.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 23 June 2020, www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0911-0.