As pandemic halted much of the world, scientists shifted gears

Why We Wrote This

Why does the scientific method sometimes look so messy? In some ways, it’s that very messiness that makes science work. 

Jacob Turcotte
Replication lies at the heart of the scientific method. In order for an experimental finding to be considered sound, an experiment must be repeated multiple times and by different teams of researchers.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has focused the public’s attention on the scientific method like never before. And, to the outsider, it looks like a haphazard and chaotic mess.

Any nonscientist looking at the snarl of studies and retractions available online would be forgiven for thinking that scientists studying the virus are perpetually contradicting themselves. But to the scientist, this is business as usual. 

Except that it’s happening a lot faster. And with a lot more public scrutiny. To meet demand for public understanding of the virus, many scientists have turned to preprint servers, which post manuscripts online without peer review. Other publishers have sped up their peer-review process from weeks to days. But, as the process speeds up, some results based on small datasets or other unreliable work have sneaked into the public discourse. 

At the same time, the virus has prompted laboratories around the world to build new collaborations, to widen the scope of their studies, to amass more critical data, and to check each other’s work. Science continues its steady march, even if it doesn’t always look that way.  

As COVID-19 spread around the globe, public-health experts and policymakers hustled to get on the case. But that pressure for speedy scientific results has also led to confusion.

Some findings seemed to contradict one another, and others have been swiftly retracted or amended. To nonscientists, this may seem like a bumbling approach, but it actually fits within the scientific process. It’s just been thrust into the public view in an unprecedented manner. Understanding how that process works could help us untangle the snarl of coronavirus research papers. 

Why can’t we get answers more quickly?

Discoveries are often depicted as instantaneous, but research rarely works that way in real life. Most of the time, science is an incremental process of amassing information over repeated studies to slowly move toward a greater understanding. Rather than yielding sure answers, it’s about reducing uncertainty. 

That means one study by itself offers little surety. The key to producing sound results is replication. If an experiment can be repeated with the same conclusions, and, better still, repeated by different researchers, that adds confidence. Amid too little data, small inconsistencies can seem much more significant than they really are. Getting all the relevant facts takes time.

How does the scientific publication process usually work?

Typically, researchers submit a manuscript to a scientific journal where it is vetted by experts in the field who evaluate the study from top to bottom before it is accepted for publication. That process, called peer review, can take several weeks and helps prevent misleading or erroneous results from being released. It also fosters a sense of reliability. 

But with the sense of urgency in the quest for answers around the coronavirus crisis, traditional journals have sped up the peer review process to just days, in some cases. And many researchers are skipping it altogether, turning to websites that post manuscripts online without peer review, called “preprint servers.” Servers like bioRxiv and medRxiv have published more than 7,000 studies on the coronavirus alone. 

Preprint servers allow findings to be shared rapidly and widely, so policymakers and others can respond to those results quickly. But without the vetting process of peer review, some results based on insufficient data or faulty instruments have made a public splash prematurely. 

For example, in 2011 a study was posted to the popular preprint server arXiv that made a startling claim: that neutrino particles had been observed moving faster than the speed of light. The study, understandably, made headlines globally. Physicists were intensely skeptical. And the following year, the research team itself reported possible timing problems with their original measurements that could have made it seem like the neutrinos were traveling at the speed of light when they were, in fact, not. Another team also tried to replicate the results and clocked neutrinos at just shy of the speed of light. (Scientists now suspect the initial measurement arose from a bad connection between a GPS and a computer.)

What impact has this had on our understanding of the pandemic?

With the surge in preprints about the novel coronavirus, many highly speculative claims have sneaked through and into the public discourse. 

The surge in preprint publications doesn’t mean that the research isn’t being reviewed. Rather, that process is now happening more casually and more publicly – on online forums and social media. And, because the heated academic debate has been thrust into the public view, it may be jarring to nonscientists who are looking for experts to trust.

But as the pandemic wears on and the papers pile up, progress is being made in the slog toward less and less uncertainty. Researchers have built collaborations among laboratories and across borders to widen the scope of studies, amass more critical data, and check each other’s work. Science continues its steady march, even if it doesn’t always look that way.  

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