What is Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 (RR:C19) and how will it limit the widespread dissemination of misleading or false information about COVID-19?
Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 is an open-access overlay journal that seeks to accelerate peer review of COVID-19-related research and prevent the dissemination of false or misleading scientific news. The editorial team identifies papers related to the novel coronavirus and its impacts that have been posted to preprint servers across a wide range of disciplines, including biology, medicine, engineering, economics, and qualitative social sciences and commissions cross-linked, rapid peer reviews of these articles and reports. The journal also offers publishing options to the authors of papers that are positively reviewed, providing a vital outlet for research communications produced in the wake of the pandemic.
There is a lot of misleading information out there about COVID-19. We’ve even seen some high-profile retractions by the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. Would something like RR:C19 have prevented these retractions?
There are nearly 20,000 preprints on COVID-19 research available on a variety of preprint servers as of July 23, 2020 and this number is growing significantly each day, We can offer no guarantees that we’ll be able to identify and review every single problematic paper that could lead to misuse and misinterpretation, but we feel our methodology, resources, and implementation of AI tools to help us sift through the existing literature will ensure that we capture many of them.
Peer review often comes under criticism for being opaque and a closed system. How will the peer review process for COVID-19 differ from that of traditional journals?
Retractions in prestigious journals are a related but separate matter to the issues with pre-print, unreviewed publications. Publishers are trying to move as quickly as possible given the urgency to find answers and cures in the midst of this pandemic, and peer review is an imperfect filter. Anonymous, or blind, peer review can exacerbate the problem. RR:C19 addresses this by publishing open and identified peer reviews, which adds greater transparency and accountability to the vetting process.
How has the way we—the public, journalists, medical and public health officials—consume and communicate research changed in response to the urgency of COVID-19?
It is clear the pandemic has heightened media and public interest in scientific research and reported research findings are finding their way more frequently into public discourse. In effect, we are all becoming close observers of the scientific literature on COVID-19, tracking as best we can data on transmission, risk, fatalities, and implications for different demographics. Even for experts, there are challenges in tracking and evaluating this data, and in interpreting models and projections.
We are concerned about the mounting confusion between unvetted and an unvetted results; the lack of understanding about the value of peer review, how it works, and why it is needed; and the surfeit of contradictory but newsworthy information.
What are the existing challenges to finding authoritative COVID-19 research and how will RR:C19 fill these gaps?
There is a tremendous amount of open research content out there, in journals and on preprint servers. RR:C19 adds a critical layer of expert curation and review to papers that are reporting research results from across a wide variety of disciplines.
RR:C19 is not alone in trying to meet the challenge of reviewing this volume of research, but you note that the editorial team is committed to disciplinary and geographic breadth. What does this mean for the types of papers and research that will be included in RR:C19?
There are other initiatives to provide rapid reviews of COVID-19 research, but most are focused on biomedical and clinical research papers. We will look at these disciplines, but we’re also looking at a broad range of disciplines outside of medicine, including economics, psychology, anthropology and several other sub-disciplines that are part of the humanities and social sciences. This research reporting is exploding around the world, often in less-well-represented geographical regions, but it’s receiving far less attention. There are several thousand preprints on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for example. Other orgs are very focused on more specific activity points, for example, the immunological research conducted at Mt Sinai and reviews of the preprints issued by researchers at that institution. We want to provide a broader and more inclusive vantage point on COVID-19 research — not least by having a global viewpoint. Several of our editorial board members are currently based outside of the U.S. and we aim to pay close attention to the pandemic’s impacts in countries across the world.
Why did you decide to make the journal open access? And how will the use of the PubPub platform support and amplify your goals, as a university-based publisher, while also providing users of RR:C19 with new ways to read and utilize research output?
To ensure that the peer reviews reach the widest audience possible, and to be in keeping with the spirit of the preprint community, we felt that openly publishing this material is the best way forward. We’re particularly concerned with issues around the dissemination of scholarly content for disadvantaged communities affected by COVID-19 around the globe, and we have a special focus on ensuring that members of those communities doing research on COVID-19 have an outlet for communicating out to the wider world. No barriers to access should be put in the way of getting this critical commentary to a worldwide audience that may not be able to afford a subscription to a journal.
The journal will be on the open source PubPub platform from the Knowledge Futures Group, which was developed here at MIT and features elegant and sophisticated tools that encourage discussion and debate. Readers will be able to append comments, questions, and suggestions for further reading directly on the material. It’s our hope that the platform will offer opportunities for rich and illuminating conversation to take place related to both the peer reviews and the final published article.
COVID-19 seems to have generated an unprecedented volume of research in a short span of time. How will your editorial team find and prioritize the research included in RR:C19?
We are prototyping a new type of peer curation network consisting of graduate students and field specialists. This cohort will identify relevant pre-print content for peer review, assisted by a new Natural Language Processing tool developed by COVIDScholar, an initiative of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. This AI element will help us scan a large number of preprint repositories and more swiftly identify relevant items to be peer reviewed.
RR:C19 will offer a publishing option for preprints that are positively reviewed. How do you envision this impacting the publishing process?
Our goal is to get high impact and promising research to the largest audience possible. By offering a traditional publishing option, RR:C19 contributes to the growing field of COVID-19 research and provides a new option for authors who may face delays or challenges in publishing with other journals. If an author wishes to revise and publish their article with RR:C19, we will work with them to give the work the visibility it deserves.
We also do not want to interfere with the author’s choice to publish a revised article elsewhere. In fact, it is our hope that our open access peer reviews may help authors who are submitting to other publications or allow editors of those publications to find exciting new research that they may not have otherwise discovered.
It should also be noted that whether or not we end up publishing the article has no bearing on our publishing the peer reviews.
Part of the appeal of RR:C19 is the quick turnaround on reviews. How have you changed the peer review process to speed up the time to publish?
Conventional workflows introduce unnecessary latency, because peer reviews, if made available at all, are published post-acceptance by a journal. But with COVID-19, speed of publication is critical. The process will be sped up, in part, by our use of the NLP tool COVIDScholar which will help our international team of student scholars identify likely candidates for peer review. Our esteemed editorial board will assist in connecting the editorial office with likely peer reviewers who will read and submit their reviews electronically for editorial processing. If everything looks good, the review will be published on the RR:C19 site and the preprint server housing the original research will be notified of the new peer review. This peer review will then be publicly available in a process that we estimate will take 7-10 days.
How is RR:C19 funded? Will it be a sustainable model going forward?
The project has come to life with the generous support of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, which has made significant funding commitments in response to the impacts of COVID-19 on institutions and communities.
The RR:C19 is very much an experiment in rapid publishing, but one that could well have a significant impact on how publishers work within the larger framework of scholarly communication. By treating peer reviews as first class scholarly objects and introducing peer review earlier into the publishing process, we are developing new publishing models that will well serve the academic community and the public at large. We plan to continue to raise funds to keep RRC:19 going in the future and it is our hope that the journal becomes a critical node in COVID-19 scholarship.
This feels like a completely new publishing model. Do you envision other disciplines or areas of research adapting the RR:C19 model?
Yes, we do hope the experiment here is successful and turns into a model that is adaptable to other disciplines that have embraced preprints as a common part of the research dissemination process. While the speed with which we’ve moved in this case has been dictated by the pressing needs of the scientific community and the world at large, and it seems likely that the model may have its greatest impact in times of crisis, we do see value in the adoption of this approach more broadly. Anything we can do to address issues around the public understanding of science and elevate trust in scientific research is a worthwhile effort.