Study reveals an unprecedented pace and openness in COVID-19 research

The early academic response to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was specified by research aiming to define the disease, with prompt response from all scholarly publishing stakeholders and short manuscript turnaround times, shows a new study available on the medRxiv* preprint server.

Global academic response to COVID-19: Cross-sectional study. Image Credit: ImageFlow / Shutterstock
Global academic response to COVID-19: Cross-sectional study. Image Credit: ImageFlow / Shutterstock

COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), spread around the globe triggering serious respiratory symptoms, lockdowns, and fear. A total of 3.5 million cases and 250 thousand deaths were recorded as of May 4, 2020.

Understandably, the role of science amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial, as we need steadfast and rapidly-available evidence to improve both the detection and treatment of this viral illness, as well as to reduce its transmission. Therefore, facilitating knowledge transfer is the responsibility of all members of academia.

However, limited information is available on the response of the academic community to COVID-19 research and how we can further guide its course during this global crisis.

This is why a research group from the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in the United Kingdom decided to examine the responsiveness of the academic community during the early stages of this pandemic.

Unique approach to compare outbreak publications

These researchers, headed by Dr. Jack A Helliwell from the Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St. James's (University of Leeds), pursued a systematic, bibliometric, cross-sectional review of the available literature.

In order to simplify outcome appraisal in a unique setting, they've also introduced a control group. The latter consisted of reviewing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) studies comparably.

In any case, all eligible studies had to report primary data; therefore, systematic reviews or meta-analyses were excluded. Moreover, studies of animals or pre-clinical models were eligible only if the outcomes contributed to human medicine.

Two extensive databases were interrogated: MEDLINE (the bibliographic database maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine) and EMBASE (a pharmacological and biomedical database produced by Elsevier).

Academic responsiveness was examined across three groups of the academic community. More specifically, it was divided into investigator-responsiveness (type and volume of published research), editorial-responsiveness (submission to acceptance time and the availability of original data), and publisher-responsiveness (acceptance to publication time and the provision of open access).

Flattening the curve, shortening the cycle

The results of this study reveal an expeditious academic response to COVID-19 during the start of the pandemic. The disease was initially described in case reports and case series published almost immediately in general medical journals or highly ranked specialty journals, which is usually not the case with papers like these.

On the other hand, interventional studies exploring various treatments were scarce, albeit this is expected to change as current clinical trials reach completion. And even those were mostly published as short communications (in comparison to MERS research).

Importantly, the editorial/production times for COVID-19 studies were considerably shorter when compared to MERS research, and almost all papers were openly accessible. However, only 25 percent of COVID-19 manuscripts were published with the original supporting data.

"Data sharing is an early unmet challenge, and a commitment from all members of the academic community is required," caution study authors. "Secure access data repositories exist to facilitate this safely, as do guidelines for data stewardship and management," they add.

Important considerations for data dissemination

This study notes that the urgency for new information and the need for diligent peer review must be balanced appropriately – most notably in studies that are preliminary, practice-changing, and controversial. To change a paradigm, you really need extraordinary evidence.

"Preprint publication is an alternative to fast-track editorial processes provided that audiences can accept the lack of prior editorial review," explain study authors.

Furthermore, open-access publication was shown to be pivotal in enabling the global medical community to learn from each other quickly. And indeed, this was the case for both COVID-19 and MERS research, where almost all publications were freely available; in normal circumstances, that applies to less than 50 percent of the scholarly literature.

Finally, it became evident that journals are not the only venues for reporting research data. International bodies, such as the World Health Organization, but also social media, have emerged as rapid and accessible sources of knowledge transfer.

"There remains a need to balance pragmatic and timely dissemination of results (not just limited to academic journals) with the assurances and validation brought by traditional peer-review," emphasize study authors.

Coordinating a global academic response

All relevant stakeholders – researchers, editors, and publishers – have promptly responded to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Now it is likely that the research anatomy will shift from disease descriptions towards treatment and prevention efforts.

But akin to previous global diseases, a research agenda will be needed to ensure that the global response remains relevant and coordinated. Further auditing and increase data sharing are indispensable for the academic community to pinpoint and address all the newly emerging challenges.

*Important Notice

bioRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Written by

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović is a medical doctor (MD) with a Ph.D. in biomedical and health sciences, specialist in the field of clinical microbiology, and an Assistant Professor at Croatia's youngest university - University North. In addition to his interest in clinical, research and lecturing activities, his immense passion for medical writing and scientific communication goes back to his student days. He enjoys contributing back to the community. In his spare time, Tomislav is a movie buff and an avid traveler.

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