PA Editorial

PA EDitorial
peer reviews

COVID’s impact on peer reviews: working together

Updated: May 6, 2021

Peer review has been a critical part of academic publishing for almost 300 years – assessing the quality and validity of a manuscript before publication. Fellow experts in the same field scrutinise research, findings, and ideas to maintain the integrity of science.

But what happens when a pandemic, like COVID-19, arrives and disrupts the entire world? How does this affect peer review and ultimately, the publication of important scientific findings?

The blow to our scientific community

COVID-19’s impact within society has been huge on both a personal and professional level.

The difficulties in meeting deadlines associated with peer review have been inevitable – difficulties not experienced to this level during ‘normal’ times.

The spread of the virus has meant enforced lockdown and isolation for the majority; for some, it has created the inability to work. For those who can adjust and work from home, their experiences have varied greatly due to both academic and personal responsibilities. These two spheres have had to merge, which has been a difficult transition for many.

A recent Nature article compared 2019 and 2020 preprint drop off rates of male and female academics. The impact on female academics is already visible, according to Frederickson:

‘The differences are modest, but they’re there.’[1]

She notes that the lockdowns have, so far, been relatively short compared with the usual research timeline, so the long-term implications for women’s careers are still unclear.

Modern technology allows a large proportion of us to now work from home remotely, but authors cannot carry out lab tests from home – not yet anyway! Perhaps virtual advancements may change this, but for now, a great deal of flexibility from journals has had to become common practice.

[1] See the full article here. Reviewers – the impact on our unsung heroes

[1] See the full article here.

Without the dedication of our reviewers, where would we be?

Throughout this pandemic, reviewers have continued to provide a service to their communities. The arrival of COVID-19, however, has undoubtedly changed how they have to approach their new commitments and therefore, priorities.

Reviewers are naturally busy in their primary role, but during this unusual time, some have been assigned extra COVID-19 clinical responsibilities. Inevitably, delays in reviewing times have occurred, and some journals have had to expect longer ‘times to decisions’.

But, in the face of adversity, our academic community has shown determination and resilience. For example, publishers have made their COVID-19 content freely available.

‘Following a global call from science advisors, more than 50 publishers have agreed to make all their COVID-19 and related content freely available and accessible through PubMed Central and Europe PMC.

More than 50,000 research articles have already been made available through this initiative, which will complement the open-access research already published.’[1]

This shows that although COVID-19 has undeniably made the peer review process delayed in some areas of research, there have also been advancements. Essential research has been turned around quickly, and there has been a global effort for more transparency through open access.

A second wave in some parts of the world could mean more restrictions and further delays to the process, but we are hopeful we can manage this for a second time.

[1] Quote from Laboratories during the spring of 2020

When laboratories closed across the world, researchers were unable to continue with experiments: this delayed manuscript submissions, peer reviews, and the publication of important scientific findings.

Travel restrictions, travellers stranded overseas, and quarantine upon returning home added further pressure to research teams attempting to make up for lost time.

In the face of adversity, and with valuable research at risk, some scientists have taken on this challenge themselves. For example, Michael Levin writes:

‘The very last thing we should be doing during pandemics is squandering our intellectual and biological resources and losing momentum on impactful research programs after all the grant-writing, review, and administrative effort that has been spent on initiating them.

Establishing research continuity and enabling inexpensive science to take place wherever and whenever possible, should be the mission of the educational and research communities, not only during pandemics but always. COVID-19 can help us do this.’[1]

Now that laboratories are opening again, experiments are restarting. This gives us all hope that vital work towards a COVID-19 vaccine and other research can continue, uninterrupted.

[1] Opinion: Use the Pandemic to Expand the Lab to the Home.

Our new challenges

The pandemic has brought new challenges for us all. The impact of COVID-19 has meant that fewer experts within the community are as readily available to assist due to some of the factors detailed above.

Editorial board meetings and conferences have been postponed or even cancelled. These meetings offer the sharing of research, leading to published peer-reviewed manuscripts.

However, once again, some journals and publishers have adapted well by holding virtual sessions and meetings with contributors from across the world. Conferences have become virtual, allowing greater access to a wider audience without the added carbon footprint of international travel.

Many editorial personnel already work remotely, but there have been other challenges; adjusting the peer review system work-flow to accommodate extra lead times and amendments to communications. For example, an overdue reviewer working at maximum capacity, would not be appreciative of a reminder for a review which is only a day late.

Through our personal working relationships, we are able to support everyone in the peer review process, helping to relieve this additional pressure.

A new way of working together

There are still many unknowns for the future. We will all have to continue to adapt as best as we can to the new way of working to ensure years of dedicated work is still published, in a timely fashion.

At PA EDitorial, we recognise the significant disruption COVID-19 has had on the scientific community. Clearly, COVID-19 will continue to affect our lives for some time; personally, and professionally. To our academic journals, the editorial boards and all contributors – we endeavour to support you all through this unprecedented time. Together, through communication, positive working relationships, and compassion, we can ensure our communities vital research continues to be published.

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