In the days of COVID-19, scientific studies without review: the rush is accelerating and viralizing the papers

In the scientific system, the publication of results is essential. This process is tedious and slow, but it ensures rigor. In certain cases, the appearance of preprints, early versions of the study, help speed it up.

In recent months, the amount of these preliminary scientific studies has increased, especially in the area of ​​biology, where it has grown up to 100 times. The blame seems to lie with the coronavirus and the need to "do new science" to help us against it. Society wants to know more about the disease and scientific sources are one of the focuses of knowledge. The problem is that preprints they are not "science", to use. They are still missing the last step in acquiring the rigor demanded in the scientific world: peer review. To this we add one more ingredient, social networks, and we already have the conflict.

"Science says it": when confusion dominates the subject of the moment

One of the big problems in dealing with a new virus is having no idea what to do. Scientifically speaking, SARS-CoV-2 has been a major challenge that has forced the procedure to speed up many things: developing vaccines, approving medications and, yes, publishing scientific information.

"Doing science" is a complicated, slow and tedious process. Simplifying it a lot, we consider something to be "scientific" when there is a paper or published study on a subject. In addition to the studies, when there are enough of these, a scientific consensus is formed. For example, the scientific consensus agrees that HIV exists and causes AIDS.

One of the big problems with scientific news, especially in the case of pandemics that kill hundreds of thousands of people in a few months, is the lack of scientific consensus. Generating full-blown studies brings with it a considerable amount of confusion, especially in the stratum of society that has no tools to identify scientific characteristics.

Publishing rigorous results to agree on a fact, a strategy or some recommendations takes a long time. It can get even worse when preliminary studies come into play, or preprints. These are not only not scientific studies in use, since they lack a fundamental part, but they are capable of generating noise or, worse, informational intoxication (unintentionally) even in the scientific stratum.

The ‘preprint’, a system to accelerate science

A preprint looks like a paper scientist, is structured as a paper scientific and published on sites to papers scientists but it's not a paper scientific. Preliminary articles, or preprintsAs their name indicates, they are a version prior to scientific publication (the paper). For a study to enter "science" it must go through the process of peer review (peer review) in which experts give the go-ahead, roughly, to the science it presents.

This, as we said, takes months, or even more than a year. In addition, there are other more complicated licensing, publishing and legal issues. Bottom line: doing science is slow, and can also be very expensive. As a consequence, access to scientific information is sometimes not easy even for scientists themselves, who need to pay expensive licenses to publishers.

The preprint they emerged to alleviate this delay. On the one hand, it allows early access to data of interest to the scientific community. On the other hand, it also allows the community itself to be, in part, corrective of the errors that the study may face before the peer review, so that when the paper definitive, it will have been reviewed by hundreds of volunteer reviewers who are interested a priori by topic.

The the preprint they are not texts that support scientific results. For these to occur, they must undergo peer review, in order to ensure the scientific quality of the study. Without this procedure, it cannot be said with complete certainty that the paper (actually preprint) is rigorous under scientific standards.

'Preprint' or not 'Preprint', that's the question

In science, few people discuss the benefits of having scientific results before they go through peer review. But what happens to eyes that are not used to distinguishing between a preprint and a paper consolidated? The result is that a large part of society, even a society formed in science, is taking as scientific facts results published in databases of preprints. In other words, it's building on science that isn't (yet, at least).

A clear example is that of chloroquine. Not long ago we were talking about this substance as one of the most promising when it comes to treating COVID19. However, Retraction Watch, a publication dedicated exclusively to reviewing the scientific facts and their context, has pointed out that the results used to defend its use are inconclusive. However, the appearance of preprints These beliefs have been fueled by the belief that this is an effective medication and we don't really know for sure. Similarly, we see confusion jumping from topic to topic in heated discussions between people with scientific backgrounds.

Another example: A preprint from medRxiv, another repository similar to bioRxiv, explaining that "transmission of the new coronavirus by respiratory secretions in the form of drops or aerosols" seemed likely was published on March 10. A couple of days later, a second manuscript with some important corrections was uploaded and the following week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a peer-reviewed version. However, by then, numerous news items had already been written based on versions of the document that had not been analyzed by other scientists.

It is quite common to find the preprint as a throwing weapon in argumentation, especially in biology and related to the pandemic. According to John Inglis, one of the creators of bioRxiv, probably the largest repository of preprints Related to biology, the production of these documents has increased up to 100 times since the pandemic began.

In the end, we find more production of preliminary studies, more attention from the public to the social situation, a completely new and critical circumstance (a pandemic), to which we add one more ingredient to form a true Molotov cocktail: social networks.

Social media tames science

The concern is part of the climate that has lived since the pandemic began. Social networks, in fact, are being equal parts a source of information like disinformation. This was warned by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself, WHO Director-General, a few months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic.

Quick access to a brutal amount of information can be a real curse. We see this in the more than 400 hoaxes emerged (and denied) about COVID19. The vast majority of them appear or are shared through social networks. But we don't need to go into disinformation on purpose. The confusion and novelty of the subject makes it difficult to distinguish what we know "for sure", as we would say colloquially, and what are only assumptions.

Twitter, for example, is a niche social network that attracts the attention of scientists for its potential to improve its prestige and the scope of its work. Despite the service's efforts to control the quality of information, the network has become a sink for confusing and not very rigorous information. This is a problem because sometimes it blurs the line between what are scientific facts and what are untested hypotheses.

This is where the role of the preprint in the RRSS. The easy access of society to these (which is its virtue) works against science. Even healthcare professionals unaware of the ins and outs of scientific publishing fall into the "trap" of using these documents as a cornerstone for making recommendations and criticism through social media and messaging services like WhatsApp.

Will COVID-19 also change the way we "do science"?

There are two fundamental areas in which the pandemic is putting pressure on science. The first and most evident is the need to generate more knowledge and scientific applications to develop remedies and diagnoses. The second is related to the information crisis. The publication system is very strict and slow, which sometimes hinders scientific progress, such as the obligation to always be publishing (an effect known as post or die). When we need cures and vaccinations right away, this system, designed to ensure rigor, helps highlight science's weak points. As for the information, the flood of preprints they are making the job very difficult even for specialists, who cannot easily distinguish whether the sources they are employing are rigorous or scientifically correct.

The same problem is faced by the authorities when determining social measures: should the children leave, or not? What happens to the masks? What is the rate of spread of the disease? In the ocean of information, preprints they are mixed as valid scientific data even though they are not. This can seriously compound confusion. We still do not have a clear answer to face this, although the technological media continue to fight to improve the system and the quality of the information.

And the scientists? Are you prepared for a possible change in science? Without a doubt, COVID-19 has already begun to influence the way we do science, in a more or less subtle way. Among other changes, Science experts point out, it is promoting a more international and collaborative science in which preprints they play a fundamental role. It is also causing more open and early publication. Other not so positive aspects is that the confinement has closed thousands of laboratories around the world. Still, scientific production continues unabated, inexorable.

Images | Unsplash

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