Coronavirus crowds out other research papers

Non-COVID researchers are ‘collateral damage’ as journals are forced to prioritize.

5 June 2020

Chris Woolston

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Journals and preprint servers, overwhelmed by the influx of COVID-19-related submissions, are sidelining other types of medical research, to the detriment of scientists working on other topics.

In much the same way that surges of COVID-19 patients have overwhelmed hospitals around the world, the sudden rush of research papers addressing the disease has strained and transformed the scientific publishing system.

“There is collateral damage to non-COVID researchers,” says Elizabeth Loder, a clinical editor at The BMJ and a neurologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. “There’s only so much a system can handle, and COVID is crowding other things out.”

Loder says The BMJ has been receiving more than 600 research manuscripts per month during the pandemic, more than twice the usual amount. The BMJ is still managing to properly process and evaluate submissions, says Loder, but she suspects that smaller journals with fewer resources are becoming overwhelmed.

In a BMJ blog post last week, Loder and three colleagues highlight the consequences of the “substantial” slowing down of non-COVID-19 paper processing by many journals.

“[T]his indirectly slows down the promotion processes of young scientists as these are often directly linked to the publication of scientific papers,” they write.

The struggle to publish

Even established researchers with long publication histories are feeling the effects of the pandemic on their work.

David Steensma, a haematologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, co-authored a manuscript that was rejected in April by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Steensma says the manuscript, about types of blood disorders known as myelodysplastic syndromes, received the type of favourable reviews that usually bode well for publication. “There were some minor critiques that we could have fixed,” he says.

Steensma notes that the journal later published a letter detailing a three-day trial of COVID transmission in three cats.

“Sometimes the journal surprises me by publishing things that I thought weren’t up to their standards, but it’s something provocative and novel,” he says.

The New England Journal of Medicine declined to comment for this story.

Tobias Kurth, an epidemiologist at the Charité – Berlin University of Medicine in Germany and a clinical epidemiology editor at The BMJ, says a journal recently rejected a non-COVID-related paper he co-authored because it couldn’t find a reviewer.

“There’s a focus on COVID research, and maybe for a good reason,” he says. “But if you only focus on one thing, you can’t focus on other things.”

COVID-19-related papers treated differently

A recent analysis of 14,812 preprints published on the servers bioRxiv and medRxiv from January to April 2020 found that COVID preprints were, on average, just over half the length of non-COVID preprints.

COVID preprints also had fewer tables and fewer references.

The analysis, led by Nicholas Fraser from the Leibniz Information Centre for Economics in Germany, was published on bioRxiv.

Despite being less substantial, COVID preprints were nearly 30 times more likely to be downloaded by users and more than 200 times more likely to be featured in news media.

Journals treated COVID-related preprints differently, too, handling them with much greater speed.

The study compared 101 COVID preprints that were later published in peer-reviewed journals with a random sample of 101 non-COVID preprints that followed the same path. The COVID articles were published an average of nearly 26 days faster.

Loder says it’s understandable that journals would treat COVID research differently during the pandemic.

“I don’t see it as a failure,” she says. “There’s a hunger for information. Many journals, ours included, will consider research designs and papers that other under circumstances they might not.”

Loder adds that journals only have the staff to review, edit and publish a certain number of papers in each issue. As a result, articles published on COVID leave less room for articles on other topics, potentially relegating important clinical information to less-visible journals.

Kurth says journals should, when possible, take steps to ensure that non-COVID work- including potentially life-saving information - isn’t neglected during the pandemic. For example, he says, journals could dedicate a certain number of editors to non-COVID research.

“If you have 10 editors, perhaps 7 could deal with the pandemic and 3 could deal with whatever else,” he says. “Myocardial infarction, stroke, and cancer are still out there, and we need to figure out ways to treat them.”

Steensma and his co-authors are in the process of resubmitting the paper on myelodysplastic syndromes to a more specialized journal with a smaller readership and lower impact factor than the New England Journal of Medicine, which was their first choice.

He fears such compromises could have serious effects on the careers of non-COVID researchers.

“I worry about junior investigators,” he says. “If someone is trying to get their first paper out and they have to send it to a lower journal because the system is flooded, that has an effect.”

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