The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of research being made available in a timely manner and without barriers to access. Many high-impact medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, have made their COVID-19 content freely available. Additionally, many journals expedited their review process to quickly move submitted research from the manuscript stage to acceptance. An article published in Nature determined that the median length of time for this process was six days, which is much faster than it typically takes.
Although the review process for many scholarly journals is being expedited for COVID-19 content, they cannot always keep up with the volume being submitted. Additionally, despite the review process, articles may be accepted and then ultimately retracted. This occurred in June with two papers related to COVID-19 treatment, which were retracted due to data sourcing inconsistencies. It is important to note that retractions have already been rising over the last 20 years, and it is uncertain yet if COVID-19 materials are being retracted more than other content. To look for retracted scientific content, one can search the Retraction Database, produced by Retraction Watch.
Research conducted during the pandemic is also being placed on preprint servers. These are online repositories where authors can submit their research prior to journal submission. This means that content is immediately and freely available, but with the caveat that it has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, preprints can facilitate discussion and allow authors to receive feedback. It can also give authors the chance to make appropriate changes before they submit their manuscript to a journal, or prevent a retraction from ever needing to happen, especially if the authors decide not to publish due to negative feedback. Preprints can also help to promote collaboration among researchers and build on ideas. An example of one health sciences preprint server is medRxiv, which has a section focused on COVID-19 content. Anyone who would like to search across various preprint resources, including medRxiv, can utilize the HSLS search.bioPreprint.
Despite the benefits, preprints can become an issue when readers assume information is verified simply because it is available. Unlike retractions by journal publishers, preprint servers generally do not withdraw content. This is changing in some cases due to the pandemic, as websites like bioRxiv have been withdrawing erroneous content. Various institutions are exploring ways to prevent the spread of misinformation in preprints as well. MIT Press has launched an open access journal titled Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 that utilizes artificial intelligence and open peer review to identify and validate preprints.
Overall, the pandemic has brought many concerns to light. If journal publishers revert back to their typical restricted access models once the pandemic is over, where readers need to purchase articles or have an affiliation with a library to obtain access, will scientific advancement be slowed? Readers might then settle for inferior information or interpret preprints as trustworthy simply because they are available, which could lead to the spread of misinformation. Due to this, researchers will want to consider carefully where their material is published and if they retain control over it. This could be in a peer-reviewed open access journal, which benefits both readers and researchers.
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