Today, we’re pleased to announce the launch of a project on the use of preprints in the media with support from the Open Society Foundations.
Premature media coverage was the top concern about preprints in our recent #biopreprints2020 survey, for both those who had published their research as preprints and for those who had not.
This is not surprising. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, preprints are being shared, reported on, and used to shape government policy, all at unprecedented rates. Journalists are now regularly citing preprints in their pandemic coverage, which is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it puts preprints squarely in the public eye as never before, presenting a unique opportunity to educate researchers and the public about their value. On the other hand, because journalists and non-specialist readers sometimes don’t fully understand the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed journal articles or the process of peer review itself, media coverage can result in the sharing of information which may later not stand up to scientific scrutiny, leading to misunderstanding, misinformation and the risk of damaging the public perception of preprints and the scientific process.
It is easy to understand how preprints are an attractive source of information for journalists who are under tight deadlines and pressure to be the first to report a new story. Unfortunately, these constraints also leave them little time to obtain opinions from other experts in the field before releasing their story. If the ‘not peer reviewed’ status of a preprint is not clear, journalists may be unaware that further checks are needed.
Some have tried to address the concern that preprints are not vetted or validated by calling on scientists and journalists to combine forces to rapidly peer review research posted as preprints and by providing guidance for journalists and tips for communicators.
Of course, it is not just the actions of journalists that underlie the concern about premature media coverage. Researchers too are driven by forces such as the need for recognition, funding, employment and promotions. In their interest to communicate their work as broadly as possible, researchers may not always nuance the study summary to ensure any limitations are considered, or realize if there is a ‘spin’ to how the findings are presented.
Although the concern is that research is reported before peer review and therefore has not been evaluated by other experts in the field, it is important to keep peer review in perspective. The possible shortcomings of traditional journal peer review have been under debate for over a decade, and there are other issues, such as peer review manipulation and the phenomenon of predatory publishing which undermine the status of publication in a journal as a process of validation. Blind faith in the peer review process is as misguided as no peer review at all when it comes to assessing the validity of a piece of research.
Scholarly knowledge advances in small incremental steps rather than as ground-breaking advances by individual groups of researchers. Teams across the world collaborate to build on previous knowledge, and this knowledge is validated when others can repeat and reproduce the findings. The reality of this slow process conflicts with the urgent need to find solutions to the current pandemic, the public expectation that this need will be met and the desires and ambitions of individuals who conduct and report the research.
ASAPbio, with support from the Open Society Foundations, now aims to consolidate and expand on existing efforts to set best practice standards for preprints via the launch of our Preprints in the Public Eye project. We are calling for involvement from researchers, journalists, institutions, librarians, funding agencies, and more to work on the following three main aims or the project:
- To improve the transparency and clarity of how preprints are labelled so that readers understand what checks have and have not been made on a preprint.
- To agree a set of best practice guidelines for researchers and institutions on how to work with journalists on research reported as preprints.
- To agree a set of best practice guidelines for journalists on how to assess and report on research posted as preprints.
We are looking for as wide a range of community involvement as possible, including different types of research organisations and different research fields. If you are interested in getting involved, please email the Project Coordinator, Jigisha Patel (firstname.lastname@example.org) or sign up for our newsletter, which will include updates about the project.