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Rapid Registered Reports initiative aims to stop coronavirus researchers following false leads

Researchers can expect to wait days, rather than months, for the initial peer review.

14 April 2020

Jon Brock

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As COVID-19 sweeps the world, the desire for scientific “good news” is stronger than ever. But with that comes the problem of false positive findings and false leads.

To address this challenge, the journal Royal Society Open Science is expediting its Registered Report review process specifically for COVID-19 research.

In a Registered Report, the study is peer reviewed prior to data collection, with a focus on the methods and analysis plan. The aim of the COVID-19 initiative is to return this initial review to authors within one week of submission.

Passing peer review means that authors receive an ‘in principle’ acceptance – if they follow the agreed research plan, their study will be accepted for publication, regardless of the results.

Studies will be published open access, with reviews made available alongside the article. For this initiative, Royal Society Open Science is waiving its publication fees.

Andrew Dunn, senior publishing editor at the Royal Society, says that Registered Reports are especially advantageous in the current pandemic, noting the potential for global consequences if research is wrong or published too early.

“Registered Reports can help encourage better research practices and, thus, better science with conclusions we can be more confident in,” he says.

Reviewers on-call

The Registered Report format distinguishes analyses that are ‘locked in’ as part of the original research plan from more exploratory analyses that may be undertaken in light of the data collected. But they may need to be replicated before weight can be placed on them.

The process also helps researchers design better experiments, Dunn explains.

“If their hypothesis and protocols are tested through peer review before the research is conducted, potential flaws can be spotted and eliminated,” he says. “This helps validate and verify the research and its outputs.”

The COVID-19 Registered Reports initiative is being led by Chris Chambers, a cognitive neuroscientist at Cardiff University in the UK. Chambers introduced the Registered Reports format in 2013, initially at the neuropsychology journal, Cortex.

It has since been adopted by more than 200 other journals. However, the initial triage and review process can take several months.

To accelerate the process for COVID-19 research, Chambers has recruited an international ‘brains trust’: specialists in a variety of fields who are providing subject-specific guidance and peer reviewer suggestions.

He has also signed up more than 700 researchers from a wide range of disciplines. If called upon as reviewers, they have committed to returning reviews within 24 to 48 hours.

Other journals following suit

Chambers is providing regular updates on his twitter feed. So far, two COVID-19 Registered Reports – one in psychology and one in chemistry – have received in-principle acceptance. Both were subjected to an in-depth review by four expert reviewers and two specialist editors, with the process being completed within seven days.

Two further COVID-19 Registered Reports - one in immunology/microbiology and a second in psychology - are also currently under review, but have not yet received in-principal acceptance.

Other journals have followed Royal Society Open Science in offering rapid reviews of Registered Reports for COVID-19 research, including PLOS Biology, Nature Human Behaviour, Collabra: Psychology, and all seven PeerJ journals.

“We’re proud to be able to do our small part to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dunn.

“This is a clearly a global crisis, requiring all parties to do what they can to tackle it. If Royal Society Open Science''s editors, authors, peer reviewers, and readers can help beat this crisis, then we are glad to have helped. We encourage others to get involved."

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