Shut-in scientists are spending more time on research papers

Suspension of face-to-face activities in the coronavirus pandemic sends researchers back to their manuscripts.

9 April 2020

Nic Fleming

FC Trade/Getty

Scientists are spending more time writing up, reviewing and reading research papers as social distancing measures for COVID-19 rule out many of their normal activities.

More than three-quarters of 2,800 surveyed members of ResearchGate, the Berlin-based researcher network researchers use share papers and seek collaborations, said they were spending either as much or more time writing, submitting or peer reviewing papers, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As conducting experiments, attending professional gatherings, and in-person teaching disappear from regular schedules, some 72% of respondents also said they were spending as much or more time searching for and reading the research literature.

Fiona Powrie, head of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Oxford in the UK, is a case in point. “With other commitments on hold, I have a bit more time to review the papers of fellows and postdocs in my group,” she says.

Powrie, who studies the interaction between intestinal microbiota and the host immune system, has put her group’s laboratory work on hold, and is spending more time examining previously gathered data.

“There’s more of an opportunity at the moment to further explore what we have done in the past and hypothesis generate from that for future experiments.”

That’s also true for Polly McGuigan, a biomechanist studying how the human body responds to physical activity at the Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research and Applications, University of Bath, UK.

“We have some studies with a lot of outcome measures where only the main ones have been written up and which I think we’ll be going back to,” she said. McGuigan added that she expected to be among many researchers focusing more on writing systematic reviews in the coming month.

Four out of five of those who took part in the online survey of how COVID-19 was affecting their work on March 18 to 19 work in life, applied or physical sciences.

Powrie cancelled trips to conferences in the US and Spain in March due to COVID-19.

More than three-quarters (76%) of surveyed participants said they were spending less time attending meetings and other in-person events. Some meetings are shifting online, including the UK Cilia Network annual conference, taking place on April 28

Developmental geneticist, Pleasantine Mill, of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, is one of the organizers reconfiguring the event to allow attendees to participate remotely.

“We realized we have a lot of students and postdocs with great data stories to share and who could benefit from community feedback, so we’re pressing ahead as a virtual meeting. It’s a steep learning curve.”

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