On January 31 a study was published which suggested that there were similarities between the SARS-CoV-2 responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic and the AIDS virus, which fueled conspiracy theories about the artificial origin of the microorganism, today denied. This work was actually a prepublication. A pre-print, name given to articles that have not yet passed the necessary controls that ensure minimum quality and solidity. After the wave of criticism, it was retired on February 2.
Since then, many other studies have come that try to shed light on the pandemic. It’s possible reinfection? How long does the virus survive on a surface? Is it transmitted by air? Does the patient’s vulnerability depends on your blood group? Is the microorganism a natural ‘fusion’ bat and pangolin virus?
Behind most of the scientific news about the coronavirus is a pre-print which must be received with healthy skepticism. “Caution: Prepublications are preliminary articles that have not been certified by peer review. They should not guide clinical practices or be reported in the media as established information,” warns one of the platforms where these types of articles are uploaded.
But prepublications are not new to the academic world. “Transparency, the so-called ‘open access’, has been promoted for years, and whenever we send an article to a magazine, they also recommend uploading it to a repository”, the researcher at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) explains to eldiario.es Manuel Souto.
These platforms, like bioRxiv (for biology) and medRxiv (for medicine), they do not carry out the long review process that scientific journals like Science Y Nature and that determines whether a work is published or not. “The editor assesses whether the article is relevant and novel and sends it to a series of reviewers, between three and five, specialists in that field,” Souto explains. These are responsible for “assessing the rigor” of the work and write to the editor with the errors found or directly “discourage publication” if there are serious errors.
“Major flaws give you time to do additional experiments” and force researchers to be “cautious”, while minor flaws involve “few corrections,” for example, grammar. This system can lengthen the publication process “from a few months to more than a year”, to the despair of many researchers, but it is the one that guarantees the quality of the final result.
Souto considers that the pre-prints They are especially useful when “there is an urgent need for immediate access” to information, as in the current pandemic. Especially since “they are open to everyone”, without restriction behind the usual pay wall in many scientific journals. In addition, “they allow you to see what other laboratories are doing and what line they are working on” in advance. If they did not exist, these works would not reach the academic world until they were published.
The usefulness of prepublications does not prevent them from being taken with caution, especially if they reach the general public. “It is like a raw article that has to be cleaned through a revision process that gives it the quality seal. They lack a thorough revision and they have to be picked up with tweezers,” says Souto. A tip that must be applied with special care while living with the COVID-19: many of these ‘pre-prints’ will never pass the review process. Others will do so with substantial changes.
The importance of journalistic screening
Unreviewed articles are also old acquaintances for science journalists. “The debate of the preprints It is recent, but it is not new, “explains the editor-in-chief of SINC, Pampa García Molina. “They are important to science and it is a system that many praise, but professionals must be very aware of how the world of science publications works and be cautious with these studies.”
“Science journalists must know what we are reading when we access these collections of articles that have not yet received that guarantee of acceptance by the academic community,” continues García. “For this, it is necessary to have previous experience to intuit what is important and what is not, and above all, to meet independent sources that help you assess this information.”
For all these reasons, he considers that “in the event” that it is decided to give this information, it must always be made clear to the public “that it is a study that has not yet been accepted by the scientific community.”
What does “according to a study” mean?
García believes that the coronavirus pandemic allows “transmitting to society how the world of science works within”, something that “many people do not know”, and thus “tell how science is done and its validation process.”
“We see ‘according to a study’ and believe that it is the word of the Lord, when science is not done in this way.” Any study, he recalls, “can be invalidated in a few months.” So the need to screen scientific studies goes beyond quarantining the pre-prints.
Sometimes these articles are not the result of experiments that follow the scientific method, but rather hypotheses resulting from anecdotal evidence and the experience of their author. An example is this theory from a researcher at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) that SARS-CoV-2 would have been strengthened thanks to other coronaviruses, but that currently lacks solid evidence to support it.
In other cases, the work does go through a review process but it has design flaws, it is accepted in a low-quality magazine or it is the result of the rush to publish. This studio published in the magazine National Science Review claimed that there were two strains of the coronavirus, one more “aggressive” than the other. Although it has not been retracted, it has received devastating criticism who consider it “dangerous disinformation”.
“The publishers also play clickbait and lately they prefer to publish as soon as possible, but you cannot speed up a process that takes time if you want to publish with some rigor, “Souto explains.” The rush to accept an article with little review is one of the causes of the little reproducibility“from many scientific studies, the results of which are not later replicable by other researchers.
All this means that, for García, the current crisis claims the role of the scientific journalist. “It is essential to have good science newsrooms with good conditions and the time necessary to analyze the information,” he says, “or the content that we will receive on such an important topic as this will not be as professional as we would like.” As the publisher Stewart Brand assures, science is “the only news”, and the pandemic that we are living demonstrates it.