Since the global pandemic of COVID-19 began, scientists and clinicians have rushed to understand and mitigate the threat, while sharing with other researchers what they know. Academic journals have already taken steps to accelerate the flow of peer-reviewed information by expediting editorial and peer review for coronavirus-related manuscripts and granting them open-access status upon publication.
“This coronavirus outbreak has led to a real surge on top of what we usually receive,” says Edward Campion, the executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), who says the journal is receiving up to 40 coronarvirus-related submissions per day. He says the journal’s expert virologists “have been willing to review papers under very short turnarounds, sometimes less than 24 hours.”
I’m getting probably ten to twenty review requests a week. Before the outbreak, I was sticking to mostly four to six coronavirus papers...
Coronavirus experts are intensifying their own research programs in response to the outbreak, while handling an influx of manuscripts from other researchers that require peer review.
“Before the pandemic happened, I was asked to review maybe one to two coronavirus papers per year,” says Andrew Ward, a computational biologist at the Scripps Research Institute who has researched coronaviruses for a number of years. “I am now getting three to four requests per week and have been reviewing one per week.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa who studies coronaviruses. “I’m getting probably ten to twenty review requests a week. Then I’ve been reviewing five to six per week. Before the outbreak, I was sticking to mostly four to six coronavirus papers per month.”
Rozanne Sandri-Goldin, the editor in chief of the Journal of Virology, has also seen an increase in coronavirus submissions. When a limited number of established coronavirus experts are inundated with peer review requests often under tight deadlines, many first-choice reviewers are turning her editors down. “They’re not just being asked by the Journal of Virology: they’re being asked by seven or eight other journals to also review quickly.” She reports reviewers telling the journal, “‘I’m sorry but I’m already reviewing four other manuscripts, I simply can’t do this in the timeframe you’re requesting.’”
Ward notes that when the established experts such as himself can’t review a coronavirus manuscript, journals “have to go down the food chain to people with lesser experience or no experience in coronaviruses.” This increases the risk of reviewers missing errors in the study design or analysis, which could lead to the spread of inaccurate information.
A lot of these manuscripts are rejected by the editor without involving outside experts. “I have rejected probably twenty new coronavirus papers without review because they simply didn’t meet scientific Journal of Virology study criteria,” Sandri-Goldin estimates. Campion estimates the NEJM is accepting less than 2 percent of the new coronavirus submissions for publication.
Many manuscripts that make it past the editor’s desk still have issues that peer reviewers must spot and flag. “There’s no question we’ve seen a lot of rushed studies. People who are doing the minimum they can to get something published,” Perlman notes.
The coronavirus experts have a lot more papers to look at. Currently, the pre-print servers bioRxiv and medRxiv list more than 500 coronavirus papers total, many of which have not completed peer review. “It’s unclear how many of those will eventually make it to publication,” says Sandri-Goldin, who calls the number of preprints “staggering.”
Despite their increased workload, coronavirus experts emphasize the importance of swift peer review to combat misinformation and better address the pandemic, and intend to keep reviewing as many papers as they can. Most of the data in these new coronavirus papers is going to be solid, Ward notes, “but it’s hard to go through the normal academic rigor that it takes to really vet something scientifically.”