Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits
Raising the bar
On Feb. 2, the day after Dr. Inglis discovered the swarm on Twitter around the study comparing H.I.V. and coronavirus, the Indian researchers withdrew their paper after other scientists knocked down its findings.
Faced with the public misuse of the Indian team’s findings, Dr. Inglis and Dr. Sever decided to add a more prominent notice to readers than was already on the site for those who might not be familiar with preprints.
Now, a yellow banner on every manuscript at bioRxiv warns readers that coronavirus papers on the site are “preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.”
But in subsequent weeks, there have been more challenges.
One manuscript to medRxiv uploaded on March 10 said that transmission of the new coronavirus by respiratory secretions in the form of droplets or aerosols “appears to be likely.” A few days later, the authors uploaded a second version that took out that language. The following week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a peer-reviewed version of the paper. But by then, numerous news articles had been written based on versions of the paper that had not been scrutinized by other scientists.
Dr. Inglis and his colleagues at bioRxiv and medRxiv have placed more limits on coronavirus submissions. On bioRxiv, scientists with expertise in outbreaks are taking a look at those papers. Since mid-February, they are rejecting manuscripts that propose possible coronavirus treatments solely based on computer modeling.
Some authors denied publication on the servers are understandably disappointed. “We might have been more willing to take this kind of work in the past,” Dr. Inglis said, “but now people are so desperate for things to work, I think it’s entirely OK for us to raise the bar to show more evidence.”
Such problems are not confined to preprint servers. Peer-reviewed journals are also receiving a greater volume of submissions about the novel coronavirus, and reviewers are working through them at a breakneck pace. “All the top journals have gotten lightning fast,” Dr. Topol said.