COVID-19: Can the Scientific Ecosystem Fight off the Virus?

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Last October (2019), after holding two leadership summits on The Future of Science, Outsell and CCC worked together to create a map of the scientific publishing ecosystem, detailing the actions, investments, rewards, and challenges faced by each key stakeholder group: authors, publishers, institutions and funders. Our goal was not to construct a new, idealized process, but rather to accurately reflect the common language and perspective of each stakeholder. The events, the map, and the accompanying Outsell Insight were created to help create transparency and support a collaborative dialogue among the participants in order to advance scholarly communications.

The map focuses on the following five phases of the Scientific Publishing Process:

  1. Research & Discovery,
  2. Authoring & Research Output,
  3. Peer Review,
  4. Publication & Distribution, and
  5. Post-Distribution

After describing the Tools and Services used, along with each stakeholder’s Actions, Investments and Rewards in each phase, we captured What Keeps Me Up at Night to get to the heart of each participant’s challenge. Across the board, these challenges were big, requiring stakeholder collaboration to affect meaningful change. In its October 2019 Insight, Outsell concluded that:

“Transformation is good, but it is not without pain. Structural fractures in the publishing value chain brought on by technology, budget pressures, jockeying for competitive advantage, and rogue disruption … are endemic.”

As I noted in my first article in this peer-review series, The Power of Data in the Management of Peer Review, the direct effects of the pandemic itself, and the scientific response to it, have spawned rapid innovation, collaboration and, potentially, enduring change in scientific publishing. In this post, let’s consider the impact that we’re seeing in peer review.

As a recent article published by Joseph DeBruin in Scholarly Kitchen points out, in the context of the onrush of article submissions about SARS-CoV-2, (popularly known as COVID-19), “speed and uncertainty in science are often two sides of the same coin and getting the benefit of speed without the risk of uncertainty is extremely challenging.” In June, the editor of The Lancet told a New Yorker writer (Sam Knight) that COVID-19 related submissions were coming in at four to five times the historical rate for similar papers, all but overwhelming their staff’s ability to provide peer review for them. Retraction Watch, a blog site which monitors the withdrawal of scientific papers —itself a highly useful service— has a special section dedicated to retracted COVID-19 papers. The upshot is that under the high state of urgency stemming from the international outbreak, and efforts to mitigate and stop this virus, the existing system is at minimum strained, and perhaps even struggling under the weight of incoming scientific responses. In the face of a true life-and-death challenge, what can be done?

Peer review is an area where we need to encourage innovation that will enable the community to speed up the publishing process without sacrificing the quality of its outcome. Flawed papers that are caught during the peer review step don’t need to be retracted; the damage of unpublished errors is contained to the lab itself, which can correct its procedures and do better next time. At a recent Congressional hearing, pharmaceutical industry leaders involved in the Administration’s “Warp Speed” initiative indicated strongly that research outputs involved in their COVID-19 vaccine development efforts would be put through a stringent peer review process. As Courthouse News reported, “Vaccine Speed Won’t Come at Expense of Safety, Big Pharma Vows.” medRxiv, a preprint server for the biosciences, has a subsite expressly focused on COVID-19 papers. And CCC itself curates links —to thousands of articles and hundreds of data sets related to the virus and its treatments. The pandemic is bringing past challenges into sharper focus, highlighting the issues and creating new urgency for change. The scientific ecosystem is resilient, and like other systems in nature, is adapting itself to the heightened urgencies of the disruptive breach brought on by COVID-19. While peer review is clearly an area of focus, we should expect to see more innovation and change in other areas, as the scientific publishing ecosystem responds and adapts in the months to come.

Jennifer Goodrich

Author: Jennifer Goodrich

As Director of Product Management at CCC, Jen Goodrich leads the development and evolution of CCC’s transactional licensing services as well as its RightsLink® for Scientific Communications platform, an innovative e-commerce platform that automates the payment and collection of article publication charges (APCs) for open access content. Her current focus includes helping publishers codify and implement their transformative agreements (such as Read and Publish, Publish and Read and Pure Open Access) with institutions and funders, as the scholarly communications ecosystem migrates from traditional subscription publishing to open access publishing. Jen and the RightsLink team work closely with publishers, authors, manuscript management systems, standards organizations as well as academic and funding institutions to ensure the platform meets the needs of all open access stakeholders.

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