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How preprints accelerated science communication during the pandemic

A new study led by Queen Mary University of London researchers has found that during the early phase of the pandemic, approximately 35 per cent of the COVID-19 scientific literature was shared as preprints – freely available manuscripts that are shared prior to peer-review in a journal.

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Illustration of patient data
Illustration of patient data

The study, which is published in the open access journal PLOS Biology, was led by Dr Jonathon Coates (Queen Mary University of London), Dr Nicholas Fraser (Leibniz Information Centre for Economics, Germany) and Dr Liam Brierley (University of Liverpool) and explores the crucial role of preprint servers in hosting COVID-19 related science and how these preprints have been used to disseminate knowledge of COVID-19, leading to cultural shifts in journalistic and policy practices.

Lead author, Dr Jonathon Coates from Queen Mary’s William Harvey Research Institute said: “The pandemic has shone a light on the benefits of preprints over more traditional publishing and it was clear early in the pandemic that something was happening with preprint usage.”

There has been a rapid and incredible scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with research being shared less than a month after the first reported case, and vaccines being developed in less than a year.

The researchers find that this has been matched by a striking change in the way in which research is accessed and communicated; preprints describing COVID-19 research are downloaded and accessed at unprecedented levels (up to 10-fold more than research unrelated to the pandemic) and are being heavily used by reporters and policy makers for the first time.

When the researchers explored how preprints were being shared, they found that COVID-19 preprints were being shared across online platforms such as Twitter at a rate of over seven times that of non-COVID-19 preprints. Although traditionally rarely referenced by official policy documents or reported on by journalists, preprints describing COVID-19 research are frequently being cited in policy and reported in news media, bringing active research closer to policymakers as well as the general public than ever before.

“Prominent public officials, such as Dr Fauci, have stated that preprints have been important in accelerating our understanding of COVID-19. Our data provides evidence to support these statements and reveals a clear cultural shift in the use of preprints by scientists, the general public, journalists and policy makers,” says Dr Coates. “What we hope is that the cultural shifts reported in this paper will remain after the pandemic and the biomedical community will continue to turn to preprint servers for disseminating new studies.”

More information

  • Listen to Dr Jonathan Coates speaking to BBC World Service’s Science in Action (from 32 minutes) about the role of preprints in the pandemic
  • Research paper: Fraser N, Brierley L, Dey G, Polka JK, Pálfy M, Nanni F, et al. (2021) The evolving role of preprints in the dissemination of COVID-19 research and their impact on the science communication landscape. PLoS Biol 19(4): e3000959.
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