Virus pushes science and its controversies centre stage


Hydroxychloroquine, double-blind studies, convalescent plasma, herd immunity — the coronavirus pandemic has thrust the language of science into public view as never before.

Having escaped the confines of the laboratory, these and other once-obscure terms are fast becoming part of household parlance.

But familiarity with the terminology does not necessarily lead to a better understanding, especially when there is an avalanche of new findings, experts caution.

When researchers disagree or change their mind on the efficacy of a treatment or policy, the normal back-and-forth of the scientific process can breed confusion, they say.

This is only amplified by a 24-hour news cycle and social networks, they add.

The number of studies about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes has skyrocketed into the thousands, with hundreds more in the pipeline at any given time.

This is as it should be, said Serge Horbach, an expert on academic publishing at Radboud University in The Netherlands and author of a new study about the explosion in research sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a public health crisis that, to date, has infected nearly five million people and killed more than 315,000, “the rapid dissemination of relevant scientific knowledge is of paramount importance,” he wrote.

As of mid-April, he had catalogued more than 2,000 so-called pre-prints, published without having gone through a scientific journal’s peer review, which normally takes many months.

Even the usual channel in which research is subject to scrutiny by peers or fellow experts before publication has been “considerably accelerated”, Horbach said.

In the current global health pandemic, articles have been going online or into print within 57 days, half-again as fast as usual, he has found.

Publishers have also made relevant studies freely available, and suspended the usual practice of releasing them under embargo which delays access even further.

For years, journals have been under pressure from frustrated authors and scientific institutions to speed up a practice that dates to the early 18th century.

And they have long “promised quicker and quicker peer review” in order to cater to readers and authors, said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a US-based site that monitors corrections in scientific publications.

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