As the global community considers the short- and long-term implications of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the scientific community is adjusting to a new reality of conducting business in an age of social distancing, self-quarantine and national lockdown measures. The public health crisis impacts all aspects of scientific research, from laboratory bench experiments to clinical trials. In this post, we’ll focus on how data dissemination has significantly changed in just three short months due to the pandemic.
Traditionally, researchers first present their findings at large scientific or medical meetings, where they face the scrutiny of fellow scientists and colleagues, and then publish the study results in scientific journals. This peer review practice—the gold standard for data dissemination and scientific discourse— is deliberate and methodical, and allows ample time to consider all aspects of the data being reported. Abstracts submitted to meetings are evaluated anywhere from three months to six months before the actual meeting is held. The review period for a manuscript typically is six months to nine months.
So how has the scientific community been forced to alter its ways due to the pandemic? For meeting organizers, the biggest question is how to move forward with conferences in an environment where public gatherings of more than 10 people are banned in most parts of the world. Journal editors must consider how to adjust the review process to urgently disclose COVID-19-related research without sacrificing scientific integrity and also continue to accommodate the heavy volume of non-COVID-19-related data being submitted. Here are a few ways that scientific congresses and journal publishers are adjusting their data dissemination policies amid the pandemic:
- Revamping scientific congresses in 2020 (and potentially beyond): For many professional societies, especially those with congresses scheduled for the first half of 2020, the sudden onset of the pandemic has forced them to make difficult decisions within a very short amount of time and with little information upon which to base their choices. Most organizers recognized that it’s impossible to continue with the face-to-face meetings, but they want to explore alternatives that would still allow the scientific data presentations in some manner.
Societies have found a variety of solutions to continue the scientific discourse, all of which involve some type of digital component. For example, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which holds the largest annual gathering of oncologists, is switching to a virtual meeting format. ASCO’s announcement states, “we still intend to deliver the latest cancer science to the global community during the Annual Meeting time frame using a virtual format that respects the contributions of the authors and the work of the Scientific Program Committee.” ASCO also announced plans to publish the accepted abstracts in the Journal of Clinical Oncology as it typically does during a congress.
The American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) originally opted to postpone its annual congress, but instead has announced that it will hold two virtual format events in April 2020 and June 2020. And finally, the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research (ISPOR), the professional society for health economics and outcomes research, cancelled its annual meeting inMay 2020, but announced plans to publish accepted abstracts and hold virtual programs during that time.
- Accelerating disclosure of COVID-19 data: Journal publishers are facing a slightly different dilemma: what and when to publish. Faced with the most serious public health crisis in 100 years, many publishers have to strike a balance when disclosing data related to COVID-19 research findings. It’s imperative that relevant COVID-19 data be published, but journal editors also must guard against incomplete or fraudulent results that can create unnecessary concern or even panic.
Many journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The Lancet, have implemented an accelerated review process that makes published COVID-19 data available free of charge. Open-access preprint repository servers such as bioRxiv (founded in 2013) and medRxiv (founded in 2019) have enabled scientists to publish their findings with limited scrutiny. Preprints, which are data reports that have undergone little or no formal peer review, are available to the general public after they’ve been evaluated for scientific “seriousness.” Those that raise significant scientific or methodological questions are screened out. Additionally, journal editors, including NEJM’s editor-in-chief Eric Rubin, have started podcasts as another method to accelerate access to data and timely topics related to COVID‑19.
- Continuing research for other conditions: Beyond COVID-19, the volume of scientific research submitted to meetings and journals for disclosure grows unabated. However, these publications may be delayed, with the normally slow peer-review process becoming even slower as meeting organizers and publishers shift resources to focus on COVID-19. Additionally, the current morass of data embargo policies and limited journal slot capacity creates the possibility of significant delays for authors who want to disclose their data in a timely fashion.
Thus, both professional societies and journal publishers need to adapt to a new normal in the COVID-19 era. The quick adoption of digital platforms for meetings and conferences can serve as a beacon for the future. And the use of podcasts may be expanded to incorporate digital town halls as a novel platform for data dissemination. Journal editors may also consider expanding the methods which they are currently using for COVID-19 data disclosure to other critical results such as phase III results for a novel pancreatic cancer treatment.
- Transforming data dissemination: The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the scientific community to drastically change its traditional methods of data disclosure. Meeting organizers and journal publishers alike have shown a remarkable openness to creating and adopting new ways to review data for publication without sacrificing scientific integrity and allowing for the scientific discourse to continue. Digital strategies may prove to be efficient and reliable alternatives to accelerating data dissemination and enhancing scientific engagement.
It will be interesting to see how successful the virtual meetings and programs planned by ASCO, AACR and ISPOR turn out to be. A year-end review should be conducted to determine if the alternative peer-review and preprint strategies have been able to cope with the increased volume in journal submissions. However, if these new methods are successful, then the scientific community should consider adopting them for the long-term instead of just during a short-term crisis.