Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 brings together urgency and scientific rigor so the world’s researchers can quickly disseminate new discoveries that the public can trust. Amy Brand (Director, The MIT Press) and Vilas Dhar (Trustee, The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation) appeared on the MIT Press podcast to discuss this new overlay journal, its innovative goals, and its role as a proof-of-concept for new models of peer-review and rapid publishing.
A stream and edited transcript of the episode—“Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 with Amy Brand and Vilas Dhar”—can be found below:
Chris Gondek: Hello and welcome to the MIT Press Journals podcast. I’m your host, Chris Gondek, and today I’ll be talking to Amy Brand and Vilas Dhar about the new MIT Press journal, Rapid Reviews: COVID-19—a collaborative project between the MIT Press; the University of California, Berkeley; and the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Amy Brand is the director of the MIT Press. Vilas Dhar is a technologist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist with a deep conviction that technology can be a force for good. He serves as a trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Stay tuned after the interview for more information about the show. Amy Brand and Vilas Dhar, thanks for taking time to talk to the MIT Press Journals podcast today.
Amy Brand: Good morning.
Vilas Dhar: Hello.
Chris Gondek: Can you explain the mission of Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 to the listeners?
Amy Brand: Sure thing. So, Rapid Reviews: COVID-19, or RR:C19, is what we call an overlay journal. It’s providing peer review—sort of a form of quality control—over more openly published, rapidly published content, typically on preprint servers.
Chris Gondek: So, for people that aren’t aware, what is a preprint server?
Amy Brand: A preprint server is a digital server for content emerging from the research world that has not been formally peer reviewed or published. It gained currency and is used across a range of fields—starting in physics, now in biology and medicine, moving on to other fields, economics, et cetera—as a way to accelerate the transmission and publication of scholarship and research.
Chris Gondek: Is it fair to say that, given the unique crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been kind of an onslaught of these preprint articles out there; and the question is, well, "what’s the good stuff and what’s the bad stuff?"
Amy Brand: Exactly. I mean, this is a global crisis of unprecedented proportions and, in some sense, it’s wonderful that researchers around the world are rising to the occasion to conduct research on all aspects of the pandemic and get it out there as quickly as possible. The problem is the lack of filters and the lack of media and public understanding about the difference between peer-reviewed and un-peer-reviewed content.
Chris Gondek: So, Vilas, what was it about this project that caught the eye of the McGovern Foundation?
Vilas Dhar: Yeah, so to build off of what Amy just shared: As we as a philanthropic institution went out to understand and really began to see the scope and scale of the COVID crisis that was approaching, we went out to understand the scientific landscape and we quickly ran into two significant problems. As we looked to the established journals and the places we might look for linear and deep scientific thought, we realized they weren’t responsive and quick enough to get us peer-reviewed information quickly enough for us be able to act on it. Now, on the other hand, as we looked to the preprint servers, we realized there was an incredible wealth of early data that would help us in figuring out where we should play in terms of leveraging philanthropic bets. But we had no way to assess what on those servers was truly credible science that had gone through the right and rigorous process. So, with that kind of problem space in front of us, we were introduced to the MIT Press and the work of the Rapid Reviews overlay journal, which in many ways kind of solved that problem for us—giving us a mechanism, in a way, to quickly evaluate preprints through a process of rapid reviews and get to the kind of certainty that let us then go out and speak policy and scientific interventions around COVID.
Chris Gondek: So, when we talk about this onslaught of preprints and we talk about the rapid reviewing, as I was going through the materials about RR:C19 it seems that there are two parts to it. There is the human side of the volunteers that we’re going to be talking about, but there’s also an AI system that’s been developed to help with the reviewing. Could you talk a little bit about this system and what is it designed to do?
Amy Brand: You know, our editorial partner in this is University of California, Berkeley and their program in global health through the School of Public Health. Another group at Berkeley had developed a tool called COVID Scholar, which uses AI or natural language processing to scan all the emerging literature. And what it does is it helps the editors target potentially high-impact papers in the preprint repositories or other items that we would like to select to review. So it helps with the curation process. By using AI, we can accelerate that curation process.
Chris Gondek: Are we talking simply about scientific papers? I got a sense that the remit for this project is primarily scientific—or what we consider the hard sciences, but not exclusively the hard sciences.
Vilas Dhar: One of the reasons we’re really interested in this work is this particular project gives us a way of addressing the specific COVID issues we’ve talked about, but there’s a broader interest here in rethinking how academic publishing happens. So, combined both with the use of technology, to look at a much broader top of the funnel in terms of the kind of work that’s being done, and to see if this model can be validated and step across not just scientific disciplines, but all of the disciplines of learning. We’d love to see rapid reviews and highly curated and real time scientific collaboration happening across both the hard sciences and the natural sciences, and really create a new disruption in the way that intellectual advances happen in the fields of inquiry.
Chris Gondek: We talked a little bit about the AI system as a kind of filter—the initial filter—but what do the human volunteers do? What’s their job in this project?
Amy Brand: Stepping back, a larger part of the vision around transforming publishing is how do we align what scientific and scholarly publishers do with how research is actually happening in the field or in the lab. As we’ve said, one of the ways in which traditional publishing has been out of sync, and our understanding of that has been accelerated by the pandemic, is that it needs to happen much more quickly. So, we need to adjust our processes for that, but another way in which we feel like we can help democratize science publishing is by spreading the responsibility out from the traditional arrangement where there’s a closed group of tenured professors who are selecting papers to be much more inclusive of graduate students and others. And so one of the elements of this project is involving graduate students with expertise in the particular subdomains around COVID research in helping with that curation interview process.
Chris Gondek: Now, people who’ve listened to us talk about MIT Press journals before probably wouldn’t be surprised that Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 will be using the PubPub open access system that was developed at MIT. I think you might’ve alluded to it in that last answer, Amy, but could you be more explicit? What is it about open access that’s going to work particularly well for a project like Rapid Reviews?
Amy Brand: I would say that open access should be the default model for the majority of scholarly and scientific publishing. But in this particular case, we’re going for as much transparency and openness as possible in terms of the content of the reviews. Traditionally, when you think about peer review, you think about it as kind of a closed or blind process. These reviews are being made open and are considered to be published objects in and of themselves. Really, open is the only way to realize our vision behind this project.
Chris Gondek: Vilas, is there anything you’d like to add to that?
Vilas Dhar: Again, as a consumer and a user of these journals, there’s a fundamental shift described in what Amy just talked about. That we now no longer are relying on a kind of anonymous editorial board, but we get to see the peer critique—not just in a yes or a no fashion, but really to understand the arguments in the areas for inquiry. As somebody who’s trying to drive policy decisions based on it, it’s incredibly valuable to have that level of transparency. So, I do want to underscore that.
Chris Gondek: We’re recording this in early August and, in terms of speed, this project isn’t particularly old. I think the original announcement happened in June of this year. So we’re talking on August 4th, where is the project at right now?
Amy Brand: There’s a website and we have our initial publication of—I think it’s 18 reviews—slated to go up on the site next week. So, we’ve announced it, we’ve socialized it, there’s information on the website, we’ve started to put together the editorial board, but the initial reviews are just days away from being published.
Chris Gondek: And I’m guessing that we should think of this as an ongoing project, so it’s not like there’s going to be like, say, for a traditional academic journal, a quarterly publishing date? It would be something where as new information comes in, it’ll be posted. So, it’s kind of an ongoing, rolling release of information to the public. Is that accurate?
Amy Brand: That is correct. That model of, in the digital space, no longer conforming to issues of journals is pretty common these days. But certainly for Rapid Reviews, it will just be rolling based on when we receive at least two reviews on any given paper that we’ve selected to curate, then we’ll go live.
Chris Gondek: So, for people who want to access this information, is there a URL?
Amy Brand: It is rapidreviewsCOVID-19.mitpress.mit.edu.
Chris Gondek: Now, if there are people out there that think that they can help volunteer—people or graduate students who may not have been contacted initially or people who have fields of expertise that could help this project—is the project still accepting volunteers? And if so, do you know how they could get involved?
Amy Brand: Yes. If you go to the website, if you’re interested in contributing and being involved, there’s a contact us link.
Chris Gondek: Amy Brand and Vilas Dhar, thanks so much for taking time to talk to the MIT Press Journals podcast today.
Amy Brand: Thank you very much.
Vilas Dhar: Thank you.
Chris Gondek: For more information about this and other titles, please visit our website at www.mitpress journals.org. And don’t forget, you can find the MIT Press on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thanks for listening to this episode of the MIT Press Journals podcast. Copyright 2020, the MIT Press. All rights reserved.