Be careful when using preprint servers for medical research reports

The coronavirus pandemic posed unprecedented challenges and forced a shift towards an accelerated digital transformation. The COVID-19 public health emergency focused attention on timely dissemination and reporting of research findings, resulting in the rapid growth of preprint platforms. Preprint servers like medRxiv, bioRxiv, ChemRxiv, arXiv, and ResearchSquare received attention for sharing preliminary research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Preprint servers facilitate rapid dissemination, seek the establishment of priority, and solicit feedback and collaborations.

I am a supporter of preprint platforms and of open discussions of preliminary scholarly findings. A JAMA research letter reports that clinical journals with the highest impact factor are broadly supportive of considering research preprints for publication. The number of page views, median altmetric attention scores, number of news outlets citing were higher for preprints. These later published preprints also showed trends towards a greater engagement on social media platforms like Twitter.

But, in today’s world where science is highly politicized and a misinformation pandemic looming around, researchers and policymakers need to pay close attention to these platforms’ governance, policies, and research integrity. medRxiv and bioRxiv have witnessed the highest preprint surge amidst this pandemic. These servers recognize and acknowledge that sharing poor quality science could be detrimental and hence have stepped up their usual screening policies. Currently, medRxiv has a banner at the top of their webpages, cautioning readers that the reports have not been peer-reviewed and as such should not be relied upon to report in news media as established reports or used to guide clinical practice.

Contrary to popular belief, preprints are subjected to the vetting process. bioRxiv and medRxiv have a two-tiered vetting process. In the first tier, manuscripts are screened by editorial staff who check for completeness and plagiarism. Then manuscripts are screened by volunteer academics/specialists who screen for non-scientific content, particularly conspiracies. On medRxiv, papers are scrutinized, with a turnaround time of typically four to five days.

But despite quality controls, a thoroughly debunked study reporting a causal association between brain cancer and cellphone usage remains on the bioRxiv server, which continues to be cited. Another study comparing the similarities between human immunodeficiency virus protein (HIV-1 gp120 and Gag) and coronavirus (2019 nCoV spike), though deeply flawed, remains on the server, although it says withdrawn. The platform was also exploited for amplifying Dr. Yan’s COVID-19 conspiracy theory, backed by Steve Bannon, which was later publicly debunked in major media outlets.

A study published in Quantitative Science Studies reports that academic journals also managed to decrease the publication time by 49 percent on average during this coronavirus pandemic, which is statistically relevant, with some academic journals even showing a decrease of over 80 percent compared to the pre-pandemic era.

While the preprint platforms and the expedited publication process by major academic journals on COVID-19 are laudable from the perspective of rapid dissemination, the research community and especially journalists need to carefully consume information presented on preprint servers to curb the spread of disinformation and misinformation.

Neha Pidatala is a physician and can be reached on Twitter @DrNehaPidatala.

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