Scholarly peer review used to be a lengthy process. The “fast track” approach brought on by the pandemic saw publishers adopting new workflows with significant effects for the journal publication process. How has COVID-19 changed publishing? Are the changes permanent? And is faster peer review ultimately for the greater good?
Papers published 50% faster
Peer review has never been perfect. Critics have called it inconsistent at best and biased at worst. But the pandemic pushed publishers to work at maximum speed. The COVID-19 crisis redefined what it meant to “publish or perish,” and recent data shows medical journals now publish scientific papers 50% faster than they did prior to the pandemic.
The acceleration stemmed primarily from necessity. As one MIT Press journal points out, “In times of public crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, rapid dissemination of relevant scientific knowledge is of paramount importance.” Medical and scholarly publications delivered on the pressing need for data faster than ever before. Biomedical journals cut the review phase in half — down to two months from the typical four. Digital manuscripts are now published and accessible as soon as the text is finalized.
Rapid response is clearly necessary during an unprecedented global health crisis, but there is risk associated with truncating the peer review process.
Perils of shorter peer review
During 2020, scientists published more than 100,000 articles about COVID-19, shortly after the virus first emerged at the end of 2019. With the prevalence of COVID-19 research published the following year, should we be concerned about the quality of the data?
In one significant example, data regarding the inaccuracy of imported COVID-19 tests — with high-level U.S. sources quoted reporting different levels of inaccuracy as high as 50% — was withdrawn from the Chinese journal in which it was originally published. The U.S. government relied on this data in its decision to reject imported tests, including those approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). Another study touting a COVID-19 “cure” — the infamous and controversial, hydroxychloroquine — was accepted for publication only one day after its submission. As Wired magazine says, “While desperate times may dissolve norms, speed remains the enemy of rigorous science.”
But shoddy science isn’t the only concern arising from the push to publish COVID-19 research. What other research has been bumped to make room for the “torrent” of COVID-19 data? And of the other research submitted, how much bad data slipped through the cracks of an abridged review process? “Around 4% of the world’s research output was devoted to the coronavirus in 2020,” reports Nature, “But 2020 also saw a sharp increase in articles on all subjects being submitted to scientific journals.”
The future of peer review
In science, it’s dangerous to value speed over rigor. The pandemic destabilized peer review, and faster acceptance times risk the permanent disruption of established scientific practice. The proliferation of preprint servers — to which authors can upload their papers the moment the text is finalized — is a particular cause of concern. Without a built-in review process, we are at the mercy of what Wired called a “blitzkrieg of science” when they warned, “It will not be the last time that something we thought we knew about the coronavirus because it was in a published paper will turn out to be wrong.” An editorial from the JAMA network agrees and urges a return to best practices as soon as possible; “Journals always have a responsibility to ensure an accurate scientific record, and this is critically important during a pandemic.”