Coronavirus Research Moves Faster than Medical Journals

“Many of the coronavirus-related papers being posted on MedRxiv are rushed and flawed, and some are terrible. But a lot report serious research findings, some of which will eventually find their way into prestigious journals, which have been softening their stance on previously released research. (“We encourage posting to preprint servers as a way to share information immediately,” emails Jennifer Zeis, director of communications at the New England Journal of Medicine.) In the meantime, the research is out there, being commented on and followed up on by other scientists, and reported on in the news media. The journals, which normally keep their content behind steep paywalls, are also offering coronavirus articles outside of it. New efforts to sort through the resulting bounty of available research are emerging, from a group of Johns Hopkins University scholars sifting manually through new Covid-19 papers to a 59,000-article machine-readable data set, requested by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and enabled by an assortment of tech corporations and academic and philanthropic organizations, that is meant to be mined for insights using artificial intelligence and other such means.

This is the future for scientific communication that has been predicted since the spread of the internet began to enable it in the early 1990s (and to some extent long before then), yet proved slow and fitful in its arrival. It involves more or less open access to scientific research and data, and a more-open review process with a much wider range of potential peers than the peer review offered by journals. For its most enthusiastic boosters, it is also an opportunity to break through disciplinary barriers, broaden and improve the standards for research success and generally just make science work better. To skeptics, it means abandoning high standards and a viable economic model for research publishing in favor of a chaotic, uncertain new approach.

I’m mostly on the side of the boosters here, but have learned during five years of writing on and off about academic publishing that the existing way of doing things is quite well entrenched, and that would-be innovators often misunderstand the challenges involved in displacing or replacing it….”