We are living in tough times. COVID-19 has fundamentally affected our lives and livelihoods. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and subsequent outrage is the culmination of a long trajectory of racial injustice and oppression, not just seen in the US, but globally.

It is hard to be positive in times like these, and yet hope occasionally shines from many people across the world who are willing to recognize and grapple with these real problems, resulting in a material evolution of how scientific research is done and perceived.

medical mask and hand disinfectant on the table by laptop and charts

Last week, Digital Science released a fascinating report as part of an ongoing series of Digital Research Reports. The current report is entitled “How COVID-19 is Changing Research Culture“, authored by Simon Porter and Daniel Hook of Digital Science. In this report, the authors suggest that:

Following several years in which expertise was questioned and disregarded (Kakutani 2018, Nichols 2017), in this crisis, people and governments have been quick to thrust science, scientists and experts back into the spotlight. Whether this is a cynical tactic, an authentic decision, or an unavoidable necessity is debatable. However, it is possible that we are looking at a return to an ‘Age of Reason’ and the beginning of a new world – one in which economics, healthcare provision, and international cooperation could look wildly different from how they do now…

The authors argue that renewed recognition of expertise is clearly now being seen across the World – I wish this could be said to be true for the US.

In this interview I ask Daniel Hook (CEO of Digital Science and co-author of the report) about his views on fundamental shifts in research culture as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

What were the motivations of producing your recent report, “How COVID-19 is Changing Research Culture”?

Today’s research community has expectations about content not being filtered or editorialized, about searching full text, about context and transparency. However, when you see the rapid development of a research area like COVID-19 through the trends that jump out of the data, essentially in real time, it’s really compelling. When we saw the reflection of what was happening in the research community in the data in Dimensions, we felt we just had to tell and share that story.

You talk about a possible resurgence of the Age of Reason. What leads you to this wonderful expression of optimism?

Well, I like to be optimistic if I can be! Working to support the research community is an innately optimistic place to be in the world. In the context of this report, my argument is that research and researchers have, in recent times, been unfairly painted in a very passive light: We have all seen headlines like “boffins discover new planet”. For most people outside the research world, this is quite esoteric stuff. Yet, for most of us working inside research, most of the things that are being done are much more actionable, much more pervasive, and really shape people’s lives, but it is hard for people outside this bubble to see that. The work that researchers do to cure disease, to push forward technology, to understand our society, and to create new expressions of humanity simply gets forgotten.

However, when you switch on the news every night and the Prime Minister of the UK is flanked by the country’s Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer, or researchers are in the news and are being given a platform, people begin again to understand the positive power that research can have in our lives. This is what the populace saw in the 20th Century with the work of people like Einstein, those who participated in the Space Race, and the beginning of the Information Age. In today’s short-attention world, people don’t need to be reminded once, they need to be reminded constantly. Researchers have been brought back into the limelight, and they have a responsibility to society to once again become a trusted partner.

What trends do you observe in the way that research is being produced and published on COVID-19?

Very early on in our analysis, we found that preprints were being used more, as noted in this piece that we wrote in Research Professional. This topic has now been much discussed, and there are already significant tangents on research quality and many other issues surrounding peer review in the preprint context — all of which is well-trodden ground in the scholarly communications community, but with which it is great to see the wider academic community engaging.

However, I think that the most interesting development has been around international collaboration. We’ve done an analysis of collaborative trends from several different standpoints. The first thing that we learned is that the research appearing right now is highly-localized, with the vast majority of papers involving only co-authors from a single country. When you consider the pre-pandemic global trend toward increasing international collaboration, it is interesting to see that in a crisis situation of global proportions with a shared context, the overwhelming initial response is local. Of course, there are many conjectures that one can propose as to why this is the case:

  • The fact that the crisis was initially localized in China and took time to spread (and consequently gain broader interest);
  • the fact that China has such a rapidly growing research base that, while it is increasingly collaborative internationally, it is also a fast-responding country with large absorptive capacity, which means that it may have been slower to work with other countries who may not have been able to keep up the pace with early work;
  • the fact that researchers in the early stages of any new field need to understand the field through their own lens in order to develop and bring their perspective;
  • the fact that, while humans can exhibit a broad diversity of different virtues in less stressful situations, they tend to focus on core strengths and capabilities in stressful times. International collaboration takes a lot more effort than starting to use nearby tools to access the problem.

Interestingly, this problem is much more prevalent than a mere national analysis would suggest. COVID-19 research is predominantly focused within institutional boundaries. Where it has wandered outside institutional or national boundaries, it has tended to inhabit existing established collaborative networks. We calculated that around half of the co-authorships related to COVID-19 were collaborations that had been seen before. Fry et al., have gone even further in their analysis of the network structure of COVID-19 collaborations.

How do you view open access and speed of access for COVID-19 research articles as playing a role in this emerging ecosystem?

There are two separate things here in my opinion — the first is the rise of open access as a mechanism for the dissemination of research in a general context; the second is the use of open access in extremis, which is what we’re seeing in the COVID-19 situation. At Digital Science, we’re very much in favor of open research, and open access is a significant part of that. Of course, open research is a long-term aim. While positive, making a specific area of research available through open access means is just a microcosm that may change the opinions and practices of a small set of researchers. In theoretical physics and high-energy particle physics, almost all content has been available through some kind of open access route for 20 years. That microcosm of behaviors and practices has been slow to propagate to adjacent areas. Based on this, I don’t believe that the current situation will suddenly change a field to open access; it is simply another step that must be taken on the route to open research, which is where I think an increasing number of stakeholders believe that we need to be.

Of course, it is entirely positive and appropriate that, in a situation like the present one, many publishers have made the research that they are publishing freely available through a variety of different mechanisms.  From an ethical perspective, this seems to be the human thing to do.

Increasingly COVID-19 research output is appearing on preprint servers. How do you view this development? Are there risks, both scientific and political involved? I was intrigued for example when reading stories such as this one in the New York Times: “A Study said that COVID Wasn’t That Deadly: The Right Seized It; How Coronavius Research is Being Weaponized” — May 2020.

Open Research (and preprints as a part of the mechanisms that are being developed to bring that to a reality) are necessarily a double-edged sword. It is clear that research (and the world) benefits from universal access to content as, through this, researchers can read anything they need — enhancing their ability to stand “on the shoulders of giants”. At the same time, the general public also has access to open access content — which seems completely appropriate, given that their taxes quite often paid for the research in the first place. However, we need to be careful in how a non-expert audience might interpret claims made by researchers. They may not be mindful of whether they are viewing a single piece of research in isolation, or whether they are actually only seeing one element in a much larger picture. Though I don’t believe there is one such homogenous group of people, the so-called ‘general public’ has not necessarily been trained in research, and consequently doesn’t know how scholarly communication works.

A case in point is the “Climategate” scandal from a few years ago where pre-publication discussions were stolen from a climate science lab. There were discussions between researchers calling different data into question, and questioning overall outcomes. Of course, that’s completely natural in a research environment — that is how research goes forward. There are very few neat solutions or nice answers — things are messy and difficult. Another case that comes to mind is the neutrino oscillation question, where scientists found a result that they didn’t quite believe and hence wrote a preprint to ask for validation help. This latter approach is positive and should be rewarded, but taken out of context, can be used to call all of science and research into question. There are countless examples like this. By moving to new technologies such as preprints, and by being more open, research is opening itself up to criticism, but in the name of transparency and faster development. The challenge is to teach people better and to change the understanding of modern research in the public eye. It should not be presented as a panacea, or as a group of people who have all the answers but rather as a group of people who are being absolutely brutal in the quest to understand the world around them better.

Do you see different approaches to COVID-19 research emerging in different parts of the world?

From our current vantage point, what we can say is that China has a first mover advantage through the unfortunate fact that the COVID-19 virus first appeared in China. Early research from Chinese researchers appeared in top journals and has been heavily cited. The locus of citation activity has been directly toward the early work from China, and this is likely to dominate the field for some time. The research world has responded to COVID-19 in a very similar way to that with which the virus itself has spread — starting in China, moving through India, to Europe, and across to the US.

The similarity between approaches is remarkable. If we examine the deployment of clinical trials, shown in our report, the sole difference between the Chinese approach and the European/US approach is a two-month time delay.

How are funding agencies across the world responding to the challenge of COVID-19 research and the need for increased global collaboration?

We’re still seeing a lot of national-level initiatives, and initiatives that are targeted at small groups and rapid responses. This makes complete sense from a practical perspective. Funding is being made available in ways that doesn’t require researchers to coordinate large scale international collaborations, which means that they can focus on understanding the different aspects of the virus.  Of course, there are also larger multinational initiatives, as we saw earlier in May.

As COVID-19 matures as a research field we will, I believe, naturally see the emergence of more international collaboration. We are merely in the initial stages of the research process right now. I think that part of that collaboration will be hampered by the costs and challenges that we will see in international travel. At the same time, I believe this will be an opportunity to become more effective at using online mechanisms to collaborate.

People are naturally cautious in research, and will assume that it will be a long time before we are able to return to pre-COVID freedom of movement. However, I think that as the research develops, we will gain a better understanding of whether this is a short-term problem or a long-term one. That determination will influence how the sector chooses to allocate funds, the mid-term scale of international collaboration, and the nature of the funding calls that we see being developed.

If you had to guess, where do you see the first vaccine emerging from, or will we have multiple vaccines emerging simultaneously?

At this point, this would merely be a personal conjecture. I strongly suspect that there will be multiple vaccines, but I am not a virologist or immunologist and hence I’m making that guess based on the sheer scale of the research currently being undertaken. I think that a more interesting question is whether the vaccine will emerge as the result of a public or private process, and whether the vaccine will consequently be available in the public domain or whether it will be a proprietary solution. Given so many recent arguments about wealth disparity, not just within countries but between countries, it is clear that we stand at a moment of change in the world. I would like to think that the global research community will lead the way in ensuring an equitable approach.

Do you have any parting thoughts you would like to leave with the readers of The Scholarly Kitchen?

There have been many tragic deaths due to COVID-19. It is very easy to get invested in the detail, and neglect the bigger picture. The research community knows that it has a massive responsibility in this situation, and so I think that in doing analyses such as these, they are seen in the context in which they have been developed — as a way to learn from this situation, and to hopefully improve our scholarly communication system, not as either a purely academic or as a commercial exercise.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.