COVID is changing the dynamics of medical research and publishing

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, major global efforts have been made to limit the spread of the disease, adjust health systems, develop treatments and deploy vaccines. According to the Convention on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, more than $7 billion was raised in the first 9 months of 2020 to support global collaboration in the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

As a result, issues unrelated to COVID-19 have been overlooked. For example, cancer patients have been severely affected by processing delays and reduced access to health care. In addition, a large number of surgeries have been postponed and major medical events, such as myocardial infarction and strokes, have been treated too late, with disastrous consequences for the patients. Additionally, there has been a sharp overall decrease in the allocation of funds and scientific publications to research areas unrelated to COVID-19, which may have delayed innovation. in these areas.

Assessment of the impact of COVID on medical research

In 2020, medical journals publishing international medical research saw an unprecedented increase in article submissions, and most of them created COVID-19 resources. We brought together a consortium of dedicated experts and took on the challenge of leading a ambitious review scientific literature in the best medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, JAMA, Nature Medicine, The BMJ, Annals of Internal Medicine, The Lancet Global Health, The Lancet Public Health, The Lancet Infectious Diseases and Clinical Infectious Diseases) to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research unrelated to COVID-19.

Our multidisciplinary consortium of systematic review experts included epidemiologists, physicians, biostatisticians, and methodologists. Together, we reviewed all articles published in the top 10 medical journals between 2019 and 2020, including over 22,000 publications that were categorized and analyzed.

We have included all medical publications in 2020 as well as in 2019 because we wanted to address the impact of the pandemic on all the materials produced by the journals. It was necessary to demonstrate that the exponential increase in COVID-19 research has severely affected editorial boards by overloading their workflow and affecting their usual focus for high scientific standards of publication.

What did we find?

Decrease in studies unrelated to COVID-19

The results were startling. COVID-19 studies were first published in February 2020, increasing as the pandemic unfolded, which had a negative impact on the production of non-COVID-19 studies – their number decreased over the course of the same period. Overall, based on the consortium’s analyses, there was an 18% decrease in the production of non-COVID-19 studies, which may adversely affect non-COVID-19 research and fields. associated health.

Changing the editorial strategies of major medical journals

Interestingly, the consortium demonstrated that top medical journals were adopting two distinct editorial strategies in the face of the pandemic. Some journals reduced the production of studies unrelated to COVID-19 in order to start publishing studies on COVID-19, which may have helped maintain high scientific standards.

Other journals maintained the production of non-COVID-19 studies while integrating COVID-19 studies, which may have led to a lower scientific level, as editors and reviewers were faced with an increasing number of manuscripts and less time to devote to each.

As can be deduced, the balance between scientific publication and scientific rigor is not easily achieved.

We learned a lot from unveiling these editorial strategies, as it shows how editorial teams in science might adapt to a pandemic. Today it seems like we are slowly getting back to normal in terms of medical research, but the pandemic has left a deep mark on 2020.

COVID-19 studies were less detailed and comprehensive

In 2020, researchers changed their publishing habits. In COVID-19 research, researchers were more likely to conduct smaller studies (research letters) than researchers working on non-COVID-19 studies, which focused on larger studies (original articles ). It could reflect the desire to cause an immediate impact and provide new information at a time when everyone wants to contribute to the fight against the pandemic.

The consortium also identified a surprising new phenomenon, which we called “authorship multiplicity”. In many COVID-19 studies, we have identified a very large number of authors, even in case reports, which are short articles describing an individual patient.

Lessons for the future: promoting caution

This study informs us of our global haste. In medical science, our approach during the pandemic has not always led to the most insightful analyses, nor the most correctly generated data, nor the best study design. Knowledge sharing must remain the cornerstone of medical science, but knowledge must follow strict standards and methodologies. These requirements are the basis of science and have, since its foundation, taken time.

Additionally, our study underscores how important it is to keep in mind that other large-scale public health issues such as cancer or cardiovascular disease are still ongoing and may be more detrimental at scale. global than the pandemic. As such, they are worth spending time and money on and should not be overlooked.

Alexandre Loupy, MD, PhD, is professor of nephrology at Necker Hospital and leader of a research team in epidemiology and methodology in Paris, and is also an associate professor at Cedars Sinai, University of California at Los Angeles. Professor Loupy specializes in the integrative epidemiology of transplantation, the diagnosis and prognosis of transplant outcomes and the methodological evaluation of medical research. Marc Raynaud, PhD, is an epidemiologist working in Professor Loupy’s team. He specializes in prediction and risk stratification in transplantation using artificial intelligence. Due to his background in mathematics, he is also interested in improving methodology and statistics in medical research.

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