Under pressure from the flood of studies submitted to them during the COVID-19 pandemic, medical and scientific journals are adopting new processes, including seeking help of volunteer rapid reviewers, to scrutinise the research articles and expedite the process by which they are reviewed, experts say.
Citing an example of the current burden on journals, Howard Bauchner, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), noted that from January to June, 2020 over 11,000 manuscripts were submitted to the publication, compared to about 4,000 submitted during the same period in 2019.
When a study manuscript is submitted to an academic journal, as part of the peer-review process, experts in the field are asked to evaluate its scientific validity, offer insight into its impact, and provide opinion of its worthiness for publication.
“The substantive evaluation by, and opinions from reviewers with subject matter knowledge and with methodological and statistical expertise are invaluable in assessing the scientific rigor and plausibility of study findings,” Bauchner and his colleagues noted in an editorial published in JAMA last month.
However, experts, including Ritu Dhand, Vice President, Editorial, Nature Journals, said the pandemic has made the process even more challenging. “This volume and the speed with which research is being produced is certainly challenging for all parties involved in the assessment and publication of research,” Dhand told PTI in an email.
Jennifer Zeis, Director, Communications at the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) noted that the peer-review duration has shrunk.
“The process has not changed for COVID-19, other than review deadlines are expedited,” she said in an email.
Many experts say this need for speed amidst the pandemic is leading to faulty research getting published.
For instance, two COVID-19 studies were retracted from the high profile journals The Lancet and NEJM in May, after more than 100 scientists questioned their validity.
Commenting on the retractions, Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist and leading expert in the analysis of images used in published studies, said these could be the result of hastened reviewing of research manuscripts. “Normally peer-review takes months, and now it takes in some cases a day or a week,” Bik, who is based in the US, said.
Editors at JAMA, including Bauchner, mentioned a similar shrinking of timelines for editorial evaluation and peer-review from what used to take months.
With the willingness of external peer reviewers to provide rigorous analysis within two to three days, they said the journal on select occasions could publish studies within 10 to 12 days of submission by the authors.
“Rapid publication can only be done if authors, scientific editors, and manuscript editors are available to review and revise the manuscript every day during that period,” the JAMA editors noted. They said speeding up this process requires a skilled and experienced team that can process and disseminate manuscripts quickly and accurately.
Reflecting this need for experts, journals including eLife, PLOS, and The Royal Society, issued an Open Letter of Intent in April calling for scientists with suitable proficiency relevant to COVID-19 to add their names to a list of volunteer “rapid reviewers”.
Another way in which journals have attempted to reduce burden on their editorial staff is by embracing the potential of pre-print servers like bioRxiv and MedRxiv, which host unpublished studies that are yet to be peer-reviewed.
“Preprints have played an important role in disseminating initial findings very rapidly,” Dhand said.
The Open Letter of Intent also asked whether volunteers who sign up to the rapid reviewer list could help identify and highlight crucial COVID-19 preprints. Using volunteer contributions to assess the studies in preprint servers, the rapid process, sought to optimise the limited time of expert reviewers who will be “subsequently invited to review the most important and promising research”.
“The more rigorous and helpful review of preprints that can occur during this time, the better for all reviewers, authors, and editors,” the open letter said.
Some journals like eLife have started interacting with preprint servers more routinely.
“To emphasise how important we think speed is when conveying new research, we will now make posting to bioRxiv or medRxiv — either by the authors or the journal — the default for all eLife submissions,” the journal’s editors noted in May. They added that the peer review process is essential, “arguably even more so”.
Bik concurred, adding that good science is always going to take time.
“Peer review is a voluntary process and is not paid. So if you are a professor, you have to teach, and you have to do research, and with all these things, you usually don’t have a continuous-time slot in a day to review,” she explained. “It’s not going to happen on just one day. So it is very normal to get a two-week window,” Bik added.
She said if authors seek to put their findings out quickly for them to be useful, they can publish in a preprint server as these may get peer-reviewed more quickly.
“Until journal editors pick them up and subject them to review, there’s a big caveat with these findings: they are take it or leave it,” Bik said.
“Whatever you do, you are going to miss out on one of the demands,” she added.
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