Debunking Bad COVID-19 Research

By Lindsay McKenzie

To understand and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are working at a rapid clip.

As funders scale COVID-19 research grants and expedite application processes, publishers too are trying to move quickly to ensure that academics, policy makers and the public can access the latest research developments in a timely fashion.

This rush to disseminate information is exposing cracks in the scholarly research system. Academic journals have not been fast-moving historically, and traditional peer review can take months. To make research findings available quickly, many researchers are publishing versions of papers that have not yet been peer reviewed on preprint servers such as arXiv, bioRxiv and SSRN.

Preprint servers play an increasingly important role in the scholarly publishing landscape. They are a popular platform for researchers to get early feedback on their research. They are also a space where researchers can publish research products and data sets not typically published in traditional journals. The process is fast — publication of open-access research that anyone can read is immediate.

The downside of this open publication system is that sometimes controversial or poor-quality research can garner a lot of attention on social media or in news articles, said Stefano Bertozzi, professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. In the clamor for information about COVID-19, it is easy for misinformation to spread online, he said.

To combat this, MIT Press and the Berkeley School of Public Health are launching a new COVID-19 journal, one that will peer review preprint articles getting a lot of attention — elevating the good research and debunking the bad.

The Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 journal will be led by Bertozzi, who will serve as the first editor in chief. Unlike a traditional journal, authors will not submit their work for review. Instead, the Rapid Reviews team will select and review already-published preprint articles — a publishing model known as an overlay journal.

Article authors will be notified if their research is selected for review, but the Rapid Reviews team will not wait for their permission to publish public reviews of their work. These reviews will be published as stand-alone articles using open-source publishing platform PubPub. The authors of research papers deemed to be high-quality will be invited to publish their work with Rapid Reviews in a more conventional journal format.

The work of screening potentially thousands of preprint articles is not going to be easy, acknowledges Bertozzi. He plans to collaborate with researchers at the University of Washington and other institutions that have already developed processes to sift through the vast volume of pandemic research published every day. A network of student screeners from UC Berkeley and other institutions will assist in this process. Artificial intelligence will also be used to identify potentially noteworthy articles.

There are already more than 5,800 articles relating to the pandemic on bioRxiv and medRxiv, said John Inglis, who co-founded the preprint servers. “I do think it necessary to peer review at least some of the many thousands of pandemic-related preprints that have appeared,” he said in an email.

“I applaud this initiative by MIT Press. It is one of several efforts the research community has mounted to provide rapid review or commentary on COVID-19 preprints,” said Inglis, who is also executive director and publisher of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. “It’s important that reviews are done quickly, also by experts, since we’re in a public health crisis where new and reliable information is vital to the management of patients and communities more broadly,” he said.

The academic scope of the Rapid Reviews journal is broad and not confined to biomedical research, said Bertozzi. The speed of the review process will depend on the availability of subject matter experts. Bertozzi hopes for quick turnarounds — publication of reviews within a week or two of Rapid Reviews selecting the articles would be the ideal, he said.

Funding for the journal is being provided by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, which has supplied a $350,000 grant. Vilas Dhar, a trustee of the foundation, described the Rapid Reviews initiative as a “breakthrough in academic publishing, bringing together urgency and scientific rigor so the world’s researchers can rapidly disseminate new discoveries that we can trust.”

“We are confident the RR:C19 journal will quickly become an invaluable resource for researchers, public health officials, and healthcare providers on the frontline of this pandemic,” said Dhar in a news release. “We’re also excited about the potential for a long-term transformation in how we evaluate and share research across all scientific disciplines.”

The formation of the journal, which will publish its first reviews in early July, was incredibly fast, said Nick Lindsay, director of journals and open access at MIT Press. Conversations about the need for peer review of COVID-19 preprints began in March, and support has been substantial, he said.

“We want to ensure that clinicians and researchers have trusted information they need to make crucial decisions. We also want to ensure we don’t have any more misinformation seeping out into the mainstream and being consumed by the public in a way that it really shouldn’t,” said Lindsay.

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